The 1 July ceremony to retire the Mississippi flag was dignified and solemn, ending with a trio of white state officials – the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the Mississippi house of representatives and the director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History – walking slowly away from what looked like a black hearse, with folded Mississippi flags resting in each person’s outstretched hands. Bits of the garish red-white-and-blue Confederate battle canton peeked out from the folds as the sentries handed them to the Black director of the state-run history and civil rights museums.
Suddenly, after 126 years of taunting and jeering at Black Mississippians and their white allies from atop flagpoles, the flag is history, another consequence of the tipping-point killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. The lightning-strike epiphany that the flag actually does hurt Black Mississippians, after decades of callous indifference from most white people here with many insisting those who don’t like it can just leave, finally drew enough additional ayes from the Republican-controlled state legislature to end the flag’s racist reign in an emotional Sunday vote.
This outcome was catapulted forward by young Black Mississippi activists and a fed-up college football player climbing on the shoulders of generations of civil-rights activists. That led to sports leagues threatening to pull big games from a state that could hardly afford one more economic loss.
The flag’s demise was surely hardest on Tate Reeves. Mississippi’s Republican governor built a political career by pleasing flag-loving Dixiecrats who rebuilt the Republican party with dog-whistles about “welfare mothers”, Willie Horton and Head Start kids. On 1 April Reeves proclaimed Confederate Heritage Month, just as Covid-19 was devastating Black communities in our state. No way he saw this anti-flag train coming during his lifetime, much less during his governorship.
Under public pressure from the most eclectic coalition of Mississippians ever assembled, Reeves, 46, finally caved and said he’d sign a bill retiring the flag – insisting that he just now figured out it hurts people, that he “couldn’t have understood the pain” as a child. “Today, I hear their hurt,” he said.
Black Mississippians have explained their pain for decades as apologists for the flag belittled them
This is impossible to comprehend. Black Mississippians have explained their pain for decades as apologists for the flag belittled them. We’ll never know how much business, or fleeing Mississippians, the state lost because they wouldn’t listen. Now, some white Mississippians are claiming victory for removing the flag for themselves and friends. That’s wrong. White politicians, Republican or Democrat, did too little over the years to change racist symbols.
Let’s be clear: Mississippi’s sudden collective about-face isn’t really a substantive reckoning with its legacy of white supremacy. Not yet. Without a sustained fight, this coalition isn’t likely to undo generations of race inequities that angry white southerners chiseled into every system after torpedoing Reconstruction. This system created de facto Black school districts that are separate but most certainly not equal. This system requires many Black, Brown and poor white Mississippians to drive more than an hour to see a healthcare provider. The majority ignore those glaring inequities every legislative session.
Reeves is adamant that the flag change means it is “time to turn a page in Mississippi” – which is another way of saying “move on” to those working to tackle racism. He clearly doesn’t want a sustained effort to move the official Confederate memorials that pepper the state. Those stone trophies vow fealty to the evil cause for which now distant ancestors of one of the women writing this column fought to subjugate ancestors of the other one writing it.
“I reject the mobs tearing down statues of our history – north and south, Union and Confederate, founding fathers and veterans,” Reeves said, four days before Donald Trump said similar words at Mount Rushmore. “I reject the chaos and lawlessness, and I am proud it has not happened in our state.”
Protesters shouldn’t need to pull down Confederate statues. An inclusive coalition can officially move them, as well as rename, say, the Ross Barnett reservoir. Some insist that removing these monuments from courthouses and town squares means we’d forget the history. But they glorify a false version of our past. Those spaces should reflect accurate history about Black folks whose fortitude and free labor built Mississippi and the nation.
We must reject the notion that the Confederate “lost cause” was anything but evil. The one of us with slave-holding and Confederate ancestors refuses to lionize them, opting instead to help heal the scars and legacies of centuries of hate and racism. The other is ready to stand in the strength of her ancestors and shoulder-to-shoulder with allies.
We’re both sick of our state glorifying racists while ignoring the direct results of their racism – resegregated schools, neglected communities, lack of healthcare, high infant and maternal mortality, and myriad conditions that mean more Black Mississippians, and especially essential women workers, are dying from a virus that should not discriminate based on pigment.
The flag change was desperately needed – and it shows that Mississippians can work together across divides. Many solutions are possible if we can move more symbols of the old order, stone or figurative, out of the way – and together dismantle the deeply embedded systemic racism they represent.
Now Mississippi must turn toward the sun of new possibilities and away from the shadows of the Confederacy, racism and white supremacy. What remains must not be complacency or self-congratulation. Together, we can rip up the roots of white supremacy that continue to infect this state and nation.
The harder work is ahead.
Kimberly Griffin is the long-time associate publisher of the Jackson Free Press. Donna Ladd is co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Jackson Free Press. Both Mississippi natives, they are now co-founders of the statewide nonprofit media outlet the Mississippi Free Press, which they launched in March with an inclusive team of staff, board and advisers