April 21 (Saturday)

The Land of Dixie
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An alphabetical list of the fifty states begins with Alabama. For many people, Alabama and neighboring Mississippi — which looks like a mirror reflection of Alabama on a map — are also the first states that come to mind when they think of the South. To make sure you don’t forget, Alabama is nicknamed The Heart of Dixie.

Or you can just glance at Alabama’s state flag. The simplest state flag — little more than a red X on a white field — it’s a vivid reminder of the Confederate battle flag.

The Civil War poses a special problem for Alabama. On one hand, it’s such an enormous part of Alabama’s heritage, it really can’t be forgotten. on the other hand, how can one commemorate the Civil War in symbols without offending (to put it mildly) African Americans?

Slavery, the Confederacy and racism are all part of Alabama’s legacy, a legacy that lingers on in symbols like Alabama’s official state Bible, creed and language (English). But is Alabama’s stereotype an accurate one? Are all Alabamans narrow-minded rednecks? If so, are they any different than the people who live in Seattle, with its amazingly racist schools?

As you might have guessed, I wasn’t a big fan of some of Alabama’s state symbols when I first began researching them. But you have to admit they inspire a lot of questions — which is a good thing. And if you sit down and ponder those questions, you may find some surprising answers (or deeper questions). To be perfectly honest, I find myself drawn to that flag; no, not Alabama’s state flag — the Confederate battle flag. It has a dark side, but it means so much more than most people realize.

Of course, the Civil War was an enormous watershed in American history, and it had a particularly devastating impact on Alabama.

After the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln got back to the business of exterminating Native Americans, and the freed slaves had to wait another century before they were allowed to vote. White Southerners were among the biggest supporters of George W. Bush, who murdered countless Muslims on the other side of the world. The black community later threw its support behind Obama — who escalated Bush’s killing spree, spreading it into Africa.

Rosa Parks
Left: Helen Keller holding the South’s unofficial national flower, a magnolia (Los Angeles times, about 1920); Right: Rosa Parks, with Dr. Martin Luther King in the background

Have all americans been brainwashed?

One Alabaman who had her head screwed on straight was Helen Keller, who’s commemorated in Alabama’s official outdoor drama, The Miracle Worker. Keller was deaf and blind, yet she was better educated and more intelligent than many Americans living today.

A talented writer, she became one of America’s most prominent socialists.

Another Alabaman who has become an unofficial Alabama symbol is Rosa Parks, a black woman who made history when she refused to sit in the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. In fact, she wasn’t the first, just as Helen Keller wasn’t the first American to lose her sight and hearing. But both women can be described as radical leftist activists — a title to be proud of.

Many of Alabama’s state symbols recall the Civil War, and it would be interesting if we could see them through the eyes and fingers of Rosa Parks and Helen keller.

The industrial revolution hit full force on the heels of the Civil War. Today, the United States is run by corporations, and the results are downright scary. If Keller and Parks were alive today, they might be horrified by “liberal Seattle,” which has become little more than a Microsoft subsidiary.

To say the U.S. needs a revolution is an understatement. Some people think nothing less than an all out Civil War can save the country at this point. Obviously, such an event would force people to take a closer look at the original Civil War, warts and all.

* * * * *

History and natural history are richly intertwined among Alabama’s state symbols, focusing largely on the Civil War. More peaceful times are recalled by the state seal, which celebrates the state’s rivers, including the one that gave Alabama its name. But Alabama’s striking red and white flag is its most visible souvenir of the Civil War.

Alabama’s first state flower, goldenrod, was adopted because its colors were seen as symbolic of the Civil War. It was later replaced by the camellia. Alabamans favor the red camellia, which matches the state flag.

In fact, red and white appear to be Alabama’s unofficial colors. Native Americans made red war paint from hematite, the reddish state mineral, which was mined along Red Mountain. The state reptile is the Alabama red-bellied turtle, the state amphibian the Red Hills salamander. And what could be whiter than Alabama marble, the official state rock?

Alabama is the only state with a woodpecker for a state bird. The “yellowhammer” is linked to the Civil War in legend as well as by its colors and is the source of the unofficial nickname Yellowhammer State. The nickname Cotton State recalls Alabama’s Civil War era agricultural roots.

Regional Symbols

Another unofficial nickname is Heart of Dixie...and Alabama makes good on its boast. A bit of regional pride might be detected in Alabama’s choice of state trees, the “southern pine.” Its state nut is a Southern nut; the pecan is also Texas’ state tree. The blackberry is a wild species that serves as the official fruit of both Alabama and Kentucky. The peach was designated Alabama’s official tree fruit.

Alabama’s official freshwater fish, the largemouth bass, ranks with the mockingbird as one of the most popular symbols in the South. In contrast, the Alabama red-bellied turtle and Red Hills salamander are found only in Alabama. So is Alabama’s state shell, Johnstone’s junonia.

Alabama recently adopted an official marine mammal that it shares with Florida, the manatee. It shares its state mammal, the black bear, with Louisiana, along with West Virginia and New Mexico (see Alabama State Mammal).

Alabama’s official saltwater fish is the tarpon. As if to complement the state motto, We Dare Maintain Our Rights, Alabama designated the fighting tarpon.

The Southern passion for outdoor pursuits can be seen in Alabama’s official game bird (turkey), horse (Racking Horse), sport (Stockton Fall Horseshoe Tournament) and barbecue championship. Located in the Bible Belt, it isn’t surprising that Alabama would adopt an official Bible. The official language, English, also suggests the conservative attitudes that are associated with the South.

Insect Wars

As if to impress admirers with its natural beauty, Alabama adopted two official butterflies. The eastern tiger swallowtail is a popular symbol in the South. The monarch butterfly was once proposed for adoption as the United States’ national insect, recalling the time when Alabamans sought to have their first state flower enthroned as the national flower.

In fact, the closest thing to a national insect may be a monument erected in Enterprise, Alabama on December 11, 1919. It commemorates the boll weevil, a terrible pest of cotton, Alabama’s most important crop.

Ironically, the boll weevil ranks among the most valuable of Alabama’s symbols. As the insect ravished the state’s cotton crops, desperate farmers tried growing other crops. Lo and behold, they discovered that some crops brought them more money than cotton, with some farmers earning three times what they had made in the best cotton years!

Earth Symbols

History and natural history are united again with Alabama’s mightiest symbol of the sea, Basilosaurus cetoides. But this prehistoric whale, Alabama’s state fossil, speaks of a history far older than the written word.

On second thought, Alabama’s state rock is even mightier and older than its prehistoric whale. For marble was forming in ancient seas long before mammals evolved.

As vast limestone continue hardening into marble, other rocks and minerals find places in people’s lives. Among the most valuable to Alabamans is hematite, or iron ore, Alabama’s official mineral. Alabama’s most beautiful earth symbol is its state gemstone, star blue quartz.

Alabama also boasts a state soil, a reminder that it could have no official wildflower (oak-leaf hydrangea) or fruit (blackberry) without soil.

map of alabama ecosymbols

On this map, counties associated with some of Alabama’s ecosymbols are highlighted. In the north, hematite (iron ore) was commercially mined along Red Mountain, while marble is still quarried in neighboring Talladega County. In the south, the state reptile (Alabama red-bellied turtle) occurs in just two counties, while the state amphibian (Red Hills salamander) is restricted to four neighboring counties. Fossils of the prehistoric whale Basilosaurus cetoides have been found in three counties in the southwest. The city of Selma was designated the Butterfly Capital of Alabama.

The state marine mammal, saltwater fish and shell (manatee, tarpon and Johnstone’s junonia) occur only along the Gulf Coast, though they range far beyond Alabama.

* * * * *

So what have I learned from researching Alabama’s state symbols? Well, I have a much deeper appreciation of Helen Keller, and I’ve also become a secret admirer of Conecuh Ridge Whiskey, even though I’ve never tasted whiskey in my life and probably never will.

If there’s a common theme uniting Alabama’s symbols bigger than the Civil War, it’s rebellion. Helen Keller and Rosa Parks are reminders that there are always battles to be fought, both good and bad, and that only we can decide which side to choose.

Cultural Symbols

Symbols of the Arts

Alabama’s state symbols include half a dozen that might be loosely classified as symbols of the arts. Actually, the square dance (the official folk dance) might almost be viewed as more of a state sport or a historic symbol. Though wholesome, it’s a bit of a yawn for the simple fact that two dozen states include the square dance among their symbols.

Map
Most of Alabama’s symbols of the arts are associated with northern Alabama. Florence and Tuscumbia are represented by a single star because they’re so close to each other.

Drama!

Dual Destiny
“Dual Destiny,” a memorial statue of a young soldier dressed half Confederate and half Yankee (Courtesy Jeane Goforth) See a bigger picture

More inspirational is the official outdoor drama, The Miracle Worker, which celebrates the extraordinary lives of Anne Sullivan and her even more famous student, Helen Keller.

Alabama’s official outdoor musical drama is The Incident at Looney’s Tavern. According to the Alabama Department of Archives and History, the play is “based on the life of Christopher Sheat, a young Winston County school teacher and the coming of the Civil War. It tells the story of the hill people of Alabama who did not want to join the Confederacy and nearly created ‘The Free State of Winston.’”

History

Those who want to venture still farther back in time can attend the official renaissance faire, the Florence Renaissance Faire, a celebration of the 12th-16th centuries.

The official historic theatre is the Alabama Theatre for the Performing Arts, located in Birmingham.

Poetry

Alabama is one of several states with a state poets laureate designation, or something similar. In Alabama, poets laureate are chosen and given awards by the Alabama Writers’ Conclave.

Legal Notes
Folk Dance — Act 81-48, Acts of Alabama, February 18, 1981
Outdoor Drama — Act 91-37, Acts of Alabama, April 30, 1991
Outdoor Musical Drama — Act 93-110, Acts of Alabama, March 18, 1993
Renaissance Faire — Act 88-43, Acts of Alabama, February 12, 1988
Historic Theatre — Act 93-26, Acts of Alabama, May 21, 1993
Alabama Poets Laureate — Act 31-92, Acts of Alabama, March 5, 1931

More Cultural Symbols

Alabama has about nine more cultural symbols, some of which most outsiders probably wouldn’t find terribly exciting at first glance. In fact, a few of them aren’t really exciting even at second glance, but others are surprisingly interesting.

Map
Most of Alabama’s other cultural symbols are associated with southern Alabama.

Alabama is the only state with an official quilt, the Pine Burr Quilt.

Horses, etc.

Horse

Horse lovers will appreciate Alabama’s state horse, the Racking Horse, the state horse show (the Alabama State Championship Horse Show, held in Montgomery each October) and the official horseshoe tournament, the Stockton Fall Horseshoe Tournament (which no longer takes place).

Horses may also be on your mind if you visit the state agricultural museum (Dothan Landmark Park), with its living history farm dating to the late 19th century.

Food and Drink

If you’re hungry, you might enjoy the state barbecue championship (Demopolis Christmas on the River Cook-off), which features three competitions: ribs, shoulders and whole hog. You could even wash your meal down with the official state beverage. No &#8212; not milk; Alabama is the only state with an official spirit, Conecuh Ridge Alabama Fine Whiskey (though Kentucky recognizes an official Bourbon Festival).

Bible, Creed and Language

You may have to be a little drunk to appreciate the remaining three Alabama symbols — the official Bible, creed and language. The first two are a reminder that freedom of religion (which includes freedom from religion) remains elusive in the U.S.

On the positive side, Alabama’s state Bible is an individual book that does have historic significance. It was even used by Jefferson Davis, who served as President of the Confederate States of America.

The state creed is the Alabamian’s Creed.

Adopted in 1990, Alabama’s official language is perhaps the biggest yawn of all. Several states have designated English their official language, apparently as part of a political agenda.

Legal Notes
Quilt: Acts of Alabama, No. 97-111
Agricultural Museum: Act 92-541, Acts of Alabama, May 21, 1992
Creed: Act 53-244, Acts of Alabama, July 29, 1953