Mississippi’s future lies with its new state flag

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Protesters opposed to changing the state flag gather outside the Mississippi Capitol during the state legislature’s historic vote to change the state’s flag in Jackson, Mississippi, on June 28. | Rory Doyle/AFP via Getty Images

Mississippi’s state flag is coming down, but the racism that created it remains.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves signed a bill on Tuesday to remove the Confederate emblem from the state’s flag — a historic decision that will officially put the 126-year-old banner, if not the controversy surrounding it, to bed.

The flag’s standing has come into question in the past few weeks as Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation, renewing discussion about removing symbols of racism and white supremacy — among them Confederate flags and statues. Mississippi’s was the only remaining state flag that conspicuously featured the battle emblem.

Reeves, a Republican, signed the bill after the Mississippi legislature voted to remove the flag over the weekend. The vote came after a host of pressures: In mid-June, the Southeastern Conference condemned the flag and demanded that it be changed; a day later, the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced that it wouldn’t host games in states where the Confederate battle flag figured prominently, a clear warning to Mississippi. A top running back at Mississippi State, Kylin Hill, threatened on Twitter that he’d leave the school’s football program and stop representing the state if the state flag wasn’t removed. Walmart also announced it would stop displaying the flag in its stores, and the Mississippi Baptist Convention — the state’s largest Baptist group, with about a half-million churchgoers — said the flag was a “relic of racism and a symbol of hatred.”

This time, the response was swift — the flag has survived many other removal attempts — with lawmakers shelving a Republican-backed amendment that would have left the decision to a 2021 statewide special election. The bill cleared the House in a 91-23 vote and passed the Senate in a 37-14 vote. With Reeve’s signature, the flag must now be removed from all state buildings within 15 days.

The vote to remove the flag signals a change in public opinion in the Deep South — racism disguised as “heritage” is no longer worth display — and acknowledges how pride in the flag erases and oppresses a large part of Mississippi’s population; 38 percent of the state is Black. But the fight isn’t over. What the state replaces the Confederate emblem with will say a lot about where its interests are.

“We do not need symbols of white supremacy and the Lost Cause to communicate history, especially when such symbols willfully misrepresent the full accounting of that history. These symbols are not meant to teach but to advocate,” University of Mississippi historian Shennette Garrett-Scott told Vox. “If citizens are not able to submit the new flag design to rigorous debate, we run the risk of replacing one problematic symbol with another one.”

The flag’s 1894 founding was understated but lasting

The Confederacy was a group of 11 treasonous Southern states, including Mississippi, that seceded from the United States after Abraham Lincoln was elected president. The armies of the Confederacy fought in the Civil War from 1861 to 1865 to entrench slavery — they wanted to ensure that their economic engine of enslaved labor would not be abolished by Lincoln and the North. The Confederacy, which was never officially recognized as a sovereign nation, disbanded in 1865 when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered in Virginia.

However, the symbolism of the Confederacy lives on. The flag has always been “a banner for a white supremacist regime that could not exist without constant violence,” according to Emory University historian Jason Morgan Ward. While some narratives identify Klansmen and neo-Nazis as the extremists who transformed the flag from a supposedly non-racist heritage into a symbol of white hate, the Confederacy — formed over a commitment to slavery — was always an “unabashedly white supremacist crusade,” said Ward. And its supporters, whether through laws or violence, acted in the oppression of Black people, he said. This expression continued through white people proudly displaying and waving the battle flag during Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the civil rights era.

Mississippi wouldn’t adopt its state flag until almost 30 years after the end of the Civil War, in 1894. But there’s no real historical record that explains why lawmakers adopted a flag that featured the St. Andrews cross, better known as the Confederate battle flag, according to historian Kevin M. Levy. “Confederate heritage organizations at the time, namely the Sons of Confederate Veterans, didn’t ask Mississippi to change the state flag. There’s no record of them requesting this, and even after the change was made, they don’t have much to say in response,” Levy told Vox.

According to Millsaps College historian Stephanie Rolph, the change was made with little fanfare. An 1894 section of the Pascagoula Democrat-Star listed news items and local announcements. News of the new state flag got one line: “The last Legislature provided for a state flag and coat-of-arms.” According to Rolph, “no description of the state flag or its symbolism followed,” and the flag that features “three bars of blue, white and red and a canton in the top left corner that contained the Confederate Battle Flag” was instituted under Mississippi Gov. John M. Stone.

While exact details surrounding the flag’s adoption are sparse, the Mississippi Constitution of 1890, which served to subvert the 15th Amendment and disenfranchise Black voters through literacy tests and poll taxes, among other restrictions, calls up the motives of the state’s white supremacist legislature.

At the time, Confederate veterans viewed the Confederate flag as the one under which they fought. “Certainly, many of them understood that their cause in the 1860s was somehow connected to the cause of defending slavery and white supremacy. That is undeniable,” Levy told Vox.

Mississippi’s 1890 conservative state constitution went further than all other Southern constitutions of the era, argues historian John W. Winkle in The Mississippi State Constitution: A Reference Guide, because it included “facially neutral” stipulations that effectively disenfranchised Black people for decades and “became a prototype of sorts for lawmakers in other states to follow.”

In addition to a cumulative poll tax that required voters to pay $2 and a literacy test that required voters to read parts of the constitution (which excluded many Black voters), the state also established a county-unit system, “a method of aggregating votes that in essence favored rural interests. No longer would the candidate who received the most popular votes overall automatically win the election,” Winkle wrote. The state’s legislative reapportionment scheme as outlined in the constitution also prevented “black counties” from “controlling public policy processes or outcomes,” according to Winkle.

Over time, beginning in the 1890s, and especially during the civil rights era, voters would repeal sections of the constitution, removing “references to overt and subtle racism […] usually long after federal laws or court rulings had outlawed such behavior,” Winkle wrote. But the Confederate flag’s connection to slavery remained throughout the 20th century. Before a white mob lynched Will Echols, a Black man, in Mississippi in 1921, the mob forced him to kiss the Confederate battle flag, Levy noted.

During the civil rights movement in Mississippi, the Confederate flag was also used as a symbol of resistance. White people who opposed school integration displayed the battle flag instead of the American flag. At a voting rights and police brutality protest in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1965, photographer Matt Herron captured the famous photo of a white police officer violently pulling the American flag out of the hands of a Black 5-year-old, Anthony Quinn, according to the advocacy group Teaching for Change.

 Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
University of Mississippi students hoisted the Confederate flag in opposition to James Meredith integrating the campus on September 20, 1962.

Decades later, a white supremacist gunman would kill nine Black people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The shooter, who openly said he wanted to incite a race war, was fond of taking photographs with the Confederate battle flag. The mass shooting forced the country to reckon with Confederate symbolism in 2015.

In the three years following the murders, more than 100 Confederate symbols were removed across the United States, from the Confederate flag to Confederate monuments, according to a 2019 Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) report. Meanwhile, institutions across Mississippi, including the University of Mississippi in 2015, stopped flying the state flag emblazoned with the Confederate symbol. Thousands of Confederate symbols still stand across the US, however, protected by state laws.

The vote for a new flag symbolizes a slow culture shift

The fight to remove Mississippi’s state flag isn’t new. In 2001, Mississippi voters in a statewide election chose to keep the flag as is. In the recent 2020 debate, Republican lawmakers pointed to the nearly 20-year-old special election as evidence that change isn’t necessary today.

“At its heart, the [2001] vote was a referendum on who gets to define the past. With only a quarter of the state voting, groups like Our State Flag Foundation were able to mobilize what I believe is a minority of Mississippians,” Garrett-Scott told Vox.

Current pro-flag supporters, like the Mississippi division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, believe the banner’s symbolism honors the memory of the soldiers who fought for the Confederacy. “The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution,” the group’s website states. But this Lost Cause ideology, a reaction to Reconstruction efforts after the Civil War, memorializes the Confederacy and suggests that Southern slavery was just and benevolent. It diminishes the oppression of Black Americans.

“This minority clings to the Lost Cause view of history, a view that allows whites to believe in the nobility of their past without adequately reckoning with darker truths,” said Garrett-Scott. “It allows them to place slavery and, with it, the failures of American democracy in the past. They do not have to acknowledge the legacies of slavery and white supremacy that remain today.”

The recent attempts by Republican lawmakers to conduct a referendum on the flag illustrates how they are still interested in avoiding accountability for the state’s racist past. “Referendums are a way for politicians to pass off a hot-potato issue without making their own stance part of the official record,” Garrett-Scott said. “Given voter suppression tactics in the state, a referendum is no guarantee that the voice of the people will be heard.”

Proportionately, Mississippi has the largest Black population of any US state — it has also been historically identified as the country’s most segregated state. The vote on the flag speaks to this divide but reveals a culture shift, according to Levy.

One example of this juxtaposition is the Emmett Till historical marker at the site near Glendora, Mississippi, where the 14-year-old’s body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River in 1955. In 2019, officials were forced to install a new bulletproof memorial to Till, since the three before it were repeatedly vandalized and riddled with bullet holes, which speak to the reluctance of coming to terms with how a white people brutalized and lynched Till. “But the fact that the markers are even there shows some progress,” Levy told Vox.

For Garrett-Scott, the threat of white supremacist domestic terrorism in Mississippi — and the drive to end it — is something she knows firsthand. Dominique Scott, her daughter, played a critical role in the movement to take down the flag on campus in the wake of the Charleston shooting when she was an undergraduate at the University of Mississippi. “The movement’s lasting impact for me is witnessing the violence and hate directed at my daughter,” Garrett-Scott told Vox, adding that her daughter, along with other student activists, turned down the FBI’s protection offers. “I stand for social justice but never fool myself that speaking up in many spaces in Mississippi is still dangerous.”

What comes next for the flag means more than the vote itself

Lawmakers plan to form a commission of nine experts to develop and design a new state flag by September 14, 2020. The new flag must include the words “In God We Trust” and “shall honor the past while embracing the promise of the future,” the bill states. In November, voters will decide whether to adopt the commission’s design.

Garrett-Scott told Vox that it’s important to make the distinction between taking down the flag and putting up a new one. If citizens don’t get the chance to weigh in on the process, the state risks repeating its mistakes and succumbing to the will of white supremacy, she said.

 Rory Doyle/AFP via Getty Images
Black Lives Matter protesters gather outside the Mississippi Capitol building during the state legislature’s historic vote to change the Mississippi flag on June 28.

The downside of failing to allow a wider body of constituents to take part in the decision-making is already playing out at the University of Mississippi’s campus. The state governing board decided to relocate a Confederate statue there to the campus’s Confederate cemetery, but it also plans to enhance the cemetery and add more Confederate symbols. The decision “not only heightens the visibility of both the cemetery and the monument but also imbues them both with even more emotional power,” Garrett-Scott told Vox.

One recommendation gaining popularity is a flag that features the Mississippi seal, which already reads “In God We Trust.” The seal also features an eagle, with its wings spread wide and its head raised, at its center. On the eagle’s chest is a shield decorated with stars and stripes; its talons clench arrows and an olive branch, symbols that represent both war and peace.

Another option is the “hospitality flag,” created in 2014, which includes 19 small blue stars in a circle around a larger 20th star, which illustrates that Mississippi was the 20th state to join the United States in 1817. The flag also features a white field to symbolize spirituality and red bands on either side that represent “the blood spilled by Mississippians, whether civilian or military, who have honorably given their lives in pursuit of liberty and justice for all,” according to the flag’s campaign website.

The flag was previously called the Stennis flag, after its maker, artist Laurin Stennis. She is the granddaughter of the late US senator from Mississippi John C. Stennis — an avowed white supremacist, segregationist, and an author of the 1954 “Southern Manifesto,” which denounced the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education and bolstered the South’s resistance to integration. Though Stennis sought to establish a vision separate from her grandfather’s with the new flag, she decided to step away from the project in June.

“In a continued effort to be of service, I will be stepping away from this endeavor as I understand the hurt and potential harm my last name can cause. […] Mississippi needs and deserves a new flag; help make it so,” she said in a statement.

The state has less than three months to figure out what its flag will represent.

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