Well, it finally happened. After over one hundred twenty years, the official flag of the state of Mississippi will be changed. I should be overjoyed since I have been a proponent of this change for many years, but I’m not. Not now. Not this way.
For those not in the know, the Mississippi state flag used blue, white, and red bars with a Virginian battle flag in its upper left corner. This Virginian battle flag is often referred to as the Confederate flag or the “rebel flag,” a symbol of the Confederacy of states that warred or rebelled against the United States proper during the American Civil War of the 1860s. In 1894, thirty years after our defeat by the Union forces, Mississippi adopted that flag ostensibly as a memorial to its native sons fallen in the “War of Northern Aggression,” the name given to the Civil War in Southern schoolbooks for years after the conflict.
Shamefacedly, I will admit that I always found our flag aesthetically pleasing; red, white, and blue always look good together, and stripped of its various connotations, the rebel flag is quite pretty. Years ago, however, I realized that the flag has these undeniable associations, associations that are egregious, hate filled, and untenable. Over the years, I read in the papers and saw on the news where this corporation or that company would not locate to Mississippi based on our divisive state emblems, specifically our flag. Given the combination of social and economic factors, the change would seem obvious, inevitable.
I have tried to reason with a few “old flag” advocates, but that has failed. Some say that the Confederate emblem represents our state’s heritage, and while that may be true to a degree, the statement begs the question: why would we wish to honor that heritage? Most simply, we lost. I have heard that the flag represents “the Southern states’ advocacy of states’ rights over federal mandate.” This is a wordy and neutered euphemism for the South’s desire to maintain chattel slavery as an economic model and to extend that model into newly forming states to the west. Certainly some will resist my simplification of the reasons for the Civil War, and I admit a reductionist tack, but at its core, the Civil War was about “a house divided against itself” on the issue of slavery. This allusion to one of history’s vilest practices is the main reason why the flag should be changed.
There are also the obvious economic factors. If companies have told our state government that they will not invest in our state and in our people because of our flag, then this should have been addressed. One could say that it was addressed back in 2001. That year, a flag change was placed on a state-wide ballot, and the people of Mississippi were allowed to vote on it. The flag remained unchanged with 64 percent of the vote in favor of the then-current design. Without being acrimonious about it, Mississippians’ reputation for making poor decisions in the voting booth is legendary. Only. Every. Time.
About fifteen years later, a new flag design was introduced unofficially to the general public. At the time, it was called the “Stennis flag” because it was designed by a young woman whose last name was Stennis and (perhaps more importantly) whose grandfather’s last name was Stennis: John Cornelius Stennis, to be precise, former Mississippi senator, one of the longest running senators in the history of the United States and namesake of the nuclear naval supercarrier, the U.S.S. John C. Stennis. As support for the flag design increased, I myself among the supporters, Ms. Stennis recently rebranded her design “the Hospitality flag” to avoid any issues that might crop up given John C. Stennis’s consistently racist background and stance for his entire forty-one years in the Senate. Good move, and the flag itself is quite attractive.
But now that our governor Tate Reeves (His Highness Tater the First) has declared our flag null and void on June 30 of this year, I am ambivalent about it. One might think that on the heels of George Floyd-fueled protests here and there and Mississippi’s population being almost forty percent African American (the largest of any state), these clarion calls to racial sensitivity and activism would have been all that we needed, yet no. These things helped, don’t misunderstand, but they were not the proverbial straws that broke the camel’s back. There were pushes in the wake of Floyd-related protests from various groups across the state. The Mississippi Association of Community Colleges—a group of fifteen (!) community college presidents—came out in favor of retiring the flag. The Mississippi Realtors © made a statement about changing the flag. A host of negligible groups that no one knew existed came out to support a new banner for our beleaguered state.
But when did shit get real? The SEC (Southeastern Conference) and the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) announced that, in light of recent events, they would no longer allow SEC-sanctioned events to take place in our state. Our two largest colleges—Mississippi State University in Starkville and the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in Oxford—belong to the SEC. Their respective head football coaches immediately came out in support of a new flag, and within just a few days, Tater had signed the bill nullifying the current flag design. Therein lies my problem: the means.
I hate to complain (o.k., a lie), but this is not the way that we were supposed to change our flag. The people of Mississippi—a majority of the voting populace, at any rate—were supposed to vote on the issue, and we were supposed to change it. We were supposed to grow as a state, we were supposed to see ourselves in our brothers, we were supposed to come together and go to the polls and show our legislature and our state and even our country that Mississippians can do this, that we can be better, that we can create the future that our posterity deserves. But that didn’t happen.
What did happen was proof positive of where our true, collective heart lies. Panem et circenses was how the Roman Juvenal described it. Tell us that our games will be suspended and that all of those people who benefit from those games will be hurt, and suddenly the wheels of progress start to turn. I find it bitterly humorous that the word “salary” is derived from the Latin word for salt because as a former instructor at an institution of higher education in this state, an instructor who was finally, politely, and firmly told to shut up about his meager earnings, the pressure placed on our state flag by two university football coaches whose salaries are each between 2.5 and 5 million dollars a year feels a great deal like salt in my emotional, intellectual, and economic wounds. This is not the way it was supposed to happen.
And on top of everything else, the bill to adopt a new flag was amended to say (1) that there could be no confederate emblem on the flag and (2) that the new flag design would include the words “In God We Trust.” Mississippians have trusted in God for so long, and I have yet to see that faith rewarded. Maybe I just don’t know where to look. Maybe that faith has led us to our state’s present condition—at the bottom of most lists where education or economics are a factor—and perhaps we did it to ourselves because we really do believe the old Baptist dictum about paying preachermen: “We’ll keep’em poor, and God’ll keep’em humble.”
The flag will be changed. I am happy about that. This divisive symbol, now removed, now defunct, leaves us as many thought we already were: without a standard. Maybe the ends will justify the means, but these next few years will be very difficult for Mississippi, and I will be here, bitterly cheerleading for my home, when all those corporations and companies that neglected us in the past are now forced to tell our representatives in the state capital that it was, in fact, our unskilled workforce, our wrecked infrastructure, and our abysmal educational system that kept them away in the first place.
Addendum as of January 12th, 2021:
After half a year, the state of Mississippi has a new flag. I am sure that it is full of symbolism and hope for our bright new future. I, along with about 60 percent of the voters of the state, voted to accept the new design as our official standard because we all knew that if we rejected it, the next design would be truly terrible.