Academic journal article Southeastern Geographer

Black, White or Green? the Confedence Battle Emblem and the 2001 Mississippi State Flag Referendum

Academic journal article Southeastern Geographer

Black, White or Green? the Confedence Battle Emblem and the 2001 Mississippi State Flag Referendum

Article excerpt


Contentious debates over whether it is appropriate to display the Confederate battle flag in public spaces have been waged across the American South since the late 1980s (Leib et al. 2000), and continue today (Leib 2011; Scharrer 2011). Attitudes about the battle flag have largely divided along racial lines in these debates. Most black citizens view the flag as a symbol of hatred and racism due to its association with attempts to preserve the Antebellum slave system during the American Civil War in the 1860s and its use as a symbol of southern defiance of court ordered desegregation during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In contrast, many southern whites interpret the battle flag as representative of the honorable struggle by their ancestors in the Civil War, seeing the flag as a proud symbol of heritage. Other whites see the flag as broadly representative of white southern culture, without reference to the Civil War itself. Additionally, some southern whites, as well as others in different parts of the U.S. and the world generally, interpret the flag as a generic symbol of rebellion or "hell-raising" (Leib and Webster 2007). For still others, support for the flag is steeped in racist attitudes (Orey 2004).

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the most vitriolic debates occurred in the four states sanctioning the most prominent displays of the battle emblem: in Alabama and South Carolina where the battle flag was flown over the state capitol buildings, and in Georgia and Mississippi where the battle emblem was incorporated into their state flags (Leib 1995; Prince 2004; Coski 2005). Although there were calls in all four states to address the legitimacy of the battle flag's public display via public referenda, Alabama and South Carolina avoided such potentially divisive public campaigns on this highly emotional issue, while Georgia avoided a direct public vote on the battle emblem itself (Webster and Leib 2001, 2002; Reksulak et al. 2007). Only in Mississippi has a statewide public vote been held on whether to fly the battle flag or a battle emblem dominated state flag. The Mississippi state flag has incorporated the battle emblem in its design since 1894. In April 2001, the state held a public referendum on whether to replace the 1894 flag with a new flag designed by a commission. The proposed new flag deleted the battle emblem and replaced it with a circle of twenty stars, but was rejected by an overwhelming majority of the state's voters (Figure 1).

In this paper we examine the geography of support for the current and proposed new flags. Unlike votes for candidates, where it can be difficult to parse out the importance of various issues to voters, elections on specific issues are highly useful for electoral geographers because they give more direct clues towards the electorate's attitudes towards the issues under consideration (e.g., Ormrod and Cole 1996; Brown et al. 2005; Chapman et al. 2007; Webster et al. 2010; Webster and Quinton 2010; Chapman 2011). As ToM and Shelley (2003, p 175) suggest,

   Analysis of the geographic distribution
   of initiatives, referenda, and other direct
   democracy processes has often
   proven a particularly valuable source
   of information to political geographers,
   because under direct democracy
   voters are expressing opinions on individual
   policy issues. Direct democracy
   provides especially valuable information
   about cultural and identity politics,
   and is therefore critical to the
   understanding of social and cultural
   linkages to political processes.

This work contributes to a number of emerging fields within human geography, including recent work in critical studies of Southern geographies (e.g., Alderman and Graves 2011), especially as they relate to issues of race, identity and power in the region (e.g., Dwyer and Alderman 2008; Inwood 2009; Winders 2011). As well, this work fits within recent efforts in political geography, both in terms of work on the political geography of iconography and identity (e. …

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