Alabama wrestles with removing Confederate emblem from state’s coat of arms

Published 3:16 pm Saturday, May 1, 2021

Every day that Keith Jackson put on his Alabama state trooper’s uniform, on the sleeve was a reminder of the state’s racist and painful past: The Confederate battle flag, which is part of Alabama’s coat of arms.

The African American law enforcement officer, who is now retired, said for nearly 30 years he wore on his uniform the flag of the Confederacy. It was the same flag that flew when the state fought to keep his parents in segregated schools and the flag that white students would carry during fights at his older brother’s high school.

“It was a painful symbol for my parents. It turned into a painful symbol for me when I realized what it meant,” Jackson, 57, said, recalling his childhood and learning about the flag.

Jackson spoke at a public hearing this week in favor of a proposal by Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, to redesign Alabama’s coat of arms. The bill is not moving forward this legislative session, but House State Government Committee Chairman Chris Pringle said they want to study the idea and work on possible alternatives.

“The battle flag brings with it so many negative connotations. Alabama is always struggling with its image in that respect. If we want to move forward and have a more positive image, I think that it’s a beginning, a small beginning,” Hall said.

The debate comes during a nationwide reckoning over Confederate monuments as some states and cities seek to remove symbols paying tribute to the Confederacy. Alabama enacted a state law prohibiting the removal of Confederate and other longstanding monuments.

The coat of arms was designed during the Jim Crow era to include the Confederate flag. Underneath the shield is the state’s motto: “We dare defend our rights,” written in Latin.

The state coat of arms was designed in 1923 and officially adopted by the Alabama Legislature in 1939, according to the Alabama Department of Archives and History. The coat of arms consists of a shield with the Confederate battle flag and the flags of Great Britain, France, Spain and the United States – intended to serve as a symbol of nations that have held sovereignty over Alabama.

Steve Murray, director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, said the state coat of arms has a number of “historical inaccuracies” with the flags. For example, he said the Union Jack was not a flag that ever flew over Alabama. He said the flag used to represent the Confederacy is not a political flag, but “a military flag used on the battlefield.”

Murray said one new idea is to include something to represent Native Americans. “If we are going to make changes, let’s think about those thousands of years of indigenous presence.”

The public hearing brought people speaking for and against a change to the design.

“Why would we stand for a symbol that is outdated and oppressive and not outright racist?” said Shay Farley with the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund in Montgomery.

A member of a Confederate heritage group urged lawmakers to keep the flag.

’I am very proud to be a descendant of Confederate veterans,” said John King with the Sons of Confederate Veterans. King maintained that money was the driving issue behind the Civil War.

Jackson said when he was a state trooper he was discouraged by his supervisors from speaking up about the flag, but now that he is retired, he wants to do so.

“I want to standup for the minorities that are standing behind that doggone patch right now,” he said.