To be Black in Mississippi is to exist in a constant state of ambivalence.
I love my state immensely, but sometimes I can’t help but wonder if that love is misplaced, if my state loves me back.
I grew up in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, between the cotton fields and beneath the crop-dusters. There’s a long list of things I like about my state, but there’s an equally lengthy list of things I dislike. Near the top of the latter list: the Confederate emblem in the upper-left corner of our state flag, and the unwavering support with which some have allowed it to fly for the last 126 years knowing it is offensive to people of color like me.
Amid a widespread resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, a renewed interest was sparked in finally ridding our state’s flag of the Confederate emblem once and for all. If all goes right in November’s general election, Mississippi will be the final state to remove the symbol from its flag.
Mississippi’s current flag has had one foot in the grave for a while. Over the past decade, all eight of Mississippi’s public universities have rid their campuses of the flag and many prominent leaders, activists and state officials have publicly condemned it. In the days before legislation made its way to Governor Tate Reeves’ desk, the state was met with pressure from all angles. The Southeastern Conference, Mississippi Baptist Convention and Walmart, among many other groups, spoke out against the continued use of the flag.
All of this, though, was with very good reason.
There are some who argue that because the Confederate flag is a historical symbol, it should continue to fly over our state, to recognize Mississippi’s part in that history. They claim it stands for heritage, not hate.
I vehemently disagree.
A flag is a symbol of pride. You pray around it. You salute it. Even when a flag is retired, it is treated with the utmost respect. It is a representation of all the individuals in the state above which it flies.
But the Confederate flag was initially raised to represent a group that supported the continuation of the institution of slavery. It represented a group that kept Black men and women enslaved for economic gain. It flew over a group of states who wanted to keep Black people in chains so badly they were willing to fight a war over it. It was raised against the very values that form the basis of my freedom today. And with 37% of Mississippi’s population being Black (the highest of any state in the country) simply by virtue of its origin, it cannot be considered a representation of the state as a whole and therefore should not be a part of our state flag.
Even if you choose not to acknowledge what the flag once stood for, what it has come to represent is more than reason enough to call for its removal. Dixiecrats, who seceded from the Southern Democratic party over their opposition of civil rights initiatives, adopted the Confederate flag as their symbol. The Confederacy only used the Confederate flag for about five years–it is the Dixiecrats whom we have to thank for the flag’s popularity today. White supremacists wrap themselves in the Confederate flag at white nationalist protests. Dylann Roof, who murdered nine African-Americans in a shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, had the emblem on his car. It has become a staunch symbol of hate.
So, needless to say, I was ecstatic when the Mississippi State Senate and House of Representatives passed legislation that paved the way for the flag’s removal. There were some portions of the legislation that were less than ideal, such as the stipulation that requires the new flag to include the phrase ‘In God We Trust’. This inclusion is controversial because, it does not represent part of Mississippi’s population, this time, those in Mississippi who do not believe in God. Other than that, however, the bill achieved everything that I, and many others, wanted it to.
The most likely contender for the new flag’s design is the Hospitality Flag (formerly referred to as the Stennis Flag). It hails itself as a bipartisan, patriotic and spiritual flag, and has been the most bought and sold flag in Mississippi for the past three years.
On Nov. 3rd, Mississippians will vote not only for the next President of the United States, but also on a new state flag. It has been a long time coming. Too long, to be honest, but better late (and last) than never. Now that the state is taking strides to adopt a new flag, we cannot make the mistake of thinking that Mississippi’s struggles with race are over, or even that we are seeing the last of this hateful symbol.
Today, in my home of Cleveland, Mississippi, there was a Black Lives Matter protest in front of our courthouse, where the flag with the Confederate emblem still flies. Also today, a vehicle sporting two huge Confederate flags on its side drove past my house. The fight is far from over, but for young people, black people, and for young black people such as myself, this is exactly the kind of change we need not only to feel at home in our home, but to know that our efforts to make our home a better place aren’t fruitless.
“Go, Mississippi, you’re on the right track” reads the first line of our (thankfully unproblematic) state song. While there are other problems rooted in race that need to be addressed: poverty, educational inequality, access to healthcare, income inequality and infant mortality, to name a few, let it not be said that Mississippi’s decision to take down the flag was one of any insignificance. It means we’re going somewhere, even if we’re just now lacing up our shoes.
If all goes well on November third, I’ll end the day with three things I didn’t have the day before: one of those ‘I voted’ stickers, a new president and a new state flag. I’m looking forward to crossing one thing off my list of dislikes about my state. I’m also looking forward to taking steps to make sure that list only shrinks whilst the other grows for as long as I can devote my time and talents to the state that I love. The final stanza of our state song reads:
Go, Mississippi, get up and go,
Go, Mississippi, let the world know,
That our Mississippi is leading the show,
We aren’t leading the show yet, but with each step, like this monumental one of finally cleansing our flag of a racist emblem, we move closer and closer to a day when we will be.