Last Friday, the Mississippi Senate passed a bill that would add the motto “In God We Trust” to the state seal. They were following the direction of Gov. Phil Bryant, who introduced the idea by calling on Mississippians “to stand for our beliefs.”
Now that the Governor and Legislature are on a mission to change state insignia, let’s have a conversation about the symbol that is most offensive to our beliefs as a society, religious and otherwise: the flag.
The history of the state flag is well-known by some, selectively misremembered by others. The current flag dates to 1894, after Mississippi’s 1890 constitution had effectively purged black freedmen and carpetbagger Republicans from elected office.
The old Confederate Democrats, back in control of the Legislature, sought to “redeem” the virtue of the antebellum South by adopting a new flag with the battle emblem of its ideal exponent, Robert E. Lee. (The official flag of the Confederacy, the “stars and bars,” has been largely consigned to history’s storage closet.)
It is the myth of General Lee — the noble patrician, the ingenious strategist, the learned and benevolent slaveowner — that the flag’s defenders recall when claiming “heritage, not hate.” That his flag is also the symbol of choice for the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups is a bastardization of its original values, they say.
Yet the widespread use of the battle flag only emerged when the South began its second insurrection, after the Dixiecrat schism with President Truman’s civil rights agenda in 1948. That is when the flag began appearing at Ole Miss football games — a tradition that lasted until 1997 — and at political rallies for a generation of segregationists.
Southern states began officially recognizing the battle flag once white supremacy came under greater threat from the federal government. In 1956, Georgia included a large Confederate emblem on its state flag. In 1961, South Carolina began flying the battle flag over its state capitol. After an uproar, the South Carolina flag was moved to another place on the capitol grounds in 2000, and Georgia removed the Confederate cross from its flag in 2001. But when Mississippi put our flag to a state referendum that same year, voters preserved the Confederate design by a 2-1 margin.
Divisions over the flag run long and deep. The vitriolic campaign that led to that vote should have itself disqualified the 1894 flag from consideration. After all, a symbol that divides fails its most elementary test of fitness.
As with so many issues in Mississippi, opinions are assumed to be bifurcated by black and white (while the opinions of Mississippians of other races and ethnicities are not considered at all). I will not try to put words to the feelings of any others, especially those who haven’t shared in Mississippi’s bounty because their skin color is darker than mine.
I will, however, tell you what the flag means to me. As a white native Mississippian, the flag is indeed part of my heritage — but that heritage is hardly synonymous with honor. The flag celebrates a history of white supremacy and black oppression, of state-sanctioned dehumanization and violence, of economic manipulation and political subjugation. I cannot say whether my ancestors, few of whom have deep Southern roots, owned slaves or fought for the Confederacy. But I still owe my privilege today to the people’s ancestors who did, and the flag is a stark reminder that Mississippi has not moved past their legacy.
Privilege can sometimes be a hard thing to see in yourself. It’s even harder to renounce. On one level, giving up a flag is a trivial concession for a white Mississippian who sits comfortably atop the economic, social, and political hierarchy created under its reign. Symbolic changes do not uproot the institutions that perpetuate racial disparities in wealth, academic achievement, incarceration, disease, and many other intertwined issues.
But on another level, I believe that’s precisely why it is important for white Mississippians — particularly those of my generation — to speak out against the flag. Mississippi’s Confederate iconography has always been a wedge used by the majority to diminish the citizenship of the minority. Until Mississippi surrenders its emotional attachment to the artifacts of white supremacy, it’s unlikely that progress will be made on the material injustices and inequities that our generation has inherited.
The greatest irony of the flag debate is that Mississippi does have a heritage of valor, nobility, and honor that can be matched by few states. It involves outmanned and overpowered Mississippians who took a stand armed only with the courage of moral conviction. It is the story of many uncelebrated heroes who laid down their possessions and their lives for the unalienable rights that they hoped their children and grandchildren might one day be able to exercise.
That proud heritage will be celebrated soon in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, due to open in conjunction with the state’s bicentennial in 2017. Yet the commitment, however incomplete, to full and equal citizenship that will be documented within the museum can never be affirmed as long as the flag of secession and segregation flies above it.
Therefore, while we have Mississippi’s attention on the topic of symbols, let’s advocate for a flag that represents our shared values. Then — and only then — does the State of Mississippi deserve to talk about what we put God’s name on.