“Does the Confederate flag make you sick?” is the question being asked at this week’s Southern studies department Brown Bag lecture.
Jackson State University professor Byron D’Andra Orey will speak on the Confederate flag and how it makes people feel. He said he used methods from psychophysiology to measure physiological responses to Confederate symbols.
Orey taught at the University of Mississippi from 1999 to 2001. He left after Mississippians voted to keep the century-old design of the state flag, which contains a Confederate battle emblem.
“I felt like someone had kicked me in the gut,” Orey said. “I had just returned to the state after being away for almost 10 years and was optimistic that the citizens would change the flag.”
After the vote to keep the flag, Orey said he began to see symbols he hadn’t noticed before like the Confederate graveyard on campus or the marker recognizing Nathan Bedford Forrest, a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army.
“I had to leave,” he said. “I felt a sense of rage that I had never felt.”
He left Mississippi for a job at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln before taking on his current position at Jackson State University.
Orey said he is attempting to provide “a systematic analysis that can provide evidence to support the thesis that exposure to the flag can cause harm to those who are forced to view it.”
Just a few weeks ago, a federal appeals court ruled it would not overturn a lower courts decision to reject a lawsuit from Mississippi attorney Carlos E. Moore. Moore had filed a lawsuit saying the state flag is “self-santioned hate speech.”
Orey said he felt empathy with Moore and others but is working to include more than anecdotal evidence like this by testing more than 100 people.
Petal native Allen Coon, a junior majoring in public policy and African American studies, said he feels anger and shame when he thinks about or sees the Confederate emblem.
“I think it’s a disgrace that (Mississippi) continues to claim a symbol of a nation that attempted to preserve the institution of slavery as an image of its state,” he said.
Coon said he thinks keeping the flag the same is “harmful for both our image and our ability to grow in the future. It makes it difficult to claim that we are a welcoming community.”
He said the flag does carry a “very real visceral reaction” with it because of the dark times that flag specifically has been tied to in history.
Coon said he was not surprised to hear Moore’s effort to remove the Confederate emblem from the Mississippi flag was blocked, due to the physiological research being a new science and difficult to prove.
However, he said he thinks leaders in the Mississippi legislator and Governor Phil Bryant do intend to push this issue to be voted upon soon.
“I don’t have high hopes in terms of its likeliness to change,” he said. “But it will soon, just not as soon as I’d like.”
Coon said Mississippi has a lot of beauty to offer.
“We should attempt to uplift that as opposed to all of the darkness in our past,” Coon said.
Hunter Fooshee, a sophomore from Pontotoc said he has a deep interest in politics.
Before the issue arose heavily on campus, Fooshee said the Mississippi flag made him feel “proud,” as it “truly embodied what we as Mississippians strive to be.”
“Once the movement to change the flag came along, my emotions drifted some, because the supporters of that movement made me second-guess them,” he said. “Now, I see perseverance, anger and strife on both sides of our flag.”
Fooshee said he sees the separation the most now, and as the flag is a statewide symbol, there shouldn’t be any, he said. Since majority views have changed about the flag, it should match those views.
“But we can’t disregard an entire chapter of our Mississippi heritage on account of changing times,” he added. “We must preserve while moving forward.”
Fooshee said he thinks new flag designs should be filtered through the state legislature before going to a statewide vote, and the new flag design should be put into the form of a ballot initiative so that all voices are heard.
“Should we change the flag? Probably so. But should we throw the old one out to dry? Absolutely not,” he said. “I believe that the worth of a piece of history like our flag is immeasurable. The flag isn’t causing the division, the differing opinions in reference to it are.”
Fooshee said he believes the judicial system made the correct decision in rejecting Moore’s effort.
“A judge shouldn’t be able to change the emblem on an object that represents the entire citizenship of a state,” he said. “That should be up to the people in a vote.”
Senior from Dallas, Texas, Dominique Scott, sociology and African American studies major, said the Confederate emblem makes her sad, angry and afraid.
“The Confederate flag always reminds me of the belief in which our white brothers and sisters actively fought to continue the institution of slavery, regardless of all the other things the Confederacy fought for,” she said.
She said it makes her angry, because it expresses how people in the community ignore and dismiss what others say about how the flag makes them feel.
“It makes me sad that people shy away from having their ideas challenged even on a college campus when one would expect their thoughts to be challenged,” Scott said.
The Confederate emblem is unwelcoming and not all-inclusive, she said.
Scott said certain symbols are profoundly connected to other people and ideologies, and those symbols can be used to intimidate or terrorize. She gave an example of how the Confederate flag is used by neo-Nazis and other forms of hate groups.
“It reminds me constantly of how much things have changed, while they continue to stay the same,” Scott said.
Orey will present preliminary results from his studies at the lecture on Wednesday. The lecture is from noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday in the Tupelo Room at the Barnard Observatory.
This article was contributed to The Daily Mississippian from an advanced reporting class.