For me, this tattered flag was a reminder of the fragility and resilience of my home state and its people, of the ties that hold it together and the winds that have torn it apart. But I love this particular symbol not just for what’s there — bits of red and blue and white holding together despite it all — but also for what’s missing. The part that fell away was the Confederate emblem: the ugly reminder of our state’s legacy of white supremacy and exclusion.
In a development that many Mississippians had longed for but never really expected to happen in our lifetimes, the state’s House and Senate on Saturday began the process of changing the flag adopted in 1894 as a backlash against Reconstruction. The way has been cleared for legislation, which Gov. Tate Reeves (R) has said he would sign, to introduce a new state flag that, finally, would represent all Mississippians.
Some would say that this action doesn’t really mean much, especially given the very real problems of racial injustice the nation faces, crystallized by the recent killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Skeptics might suggest that Mississippi’s move is just about a symbol. I understand that sentiment, but would suggest that symbols matter, too — especially when those symbols point not toward heaven but toward hell.
The Confederate emblem on the Mississippi flag was a way of enshrining who belonged, and who counted, as Mississippian — and who did not. To fly that flag required, at best, a willful suspension of thought about what the Confederate battle flag represented: an ideology based on the belief that one group of human beings could purport to kidnap, enslave, persecute and terrorize another group of people made in the image of God. This symbolism was not employed solely during the Civil War, but far outlasted it, serving in the state-sponsored terrorism of Jim Crow, the burning of crosses on the front lawns of gospel preachers, the midnight murders of civil rights activists.
No doubt some will charge that changing the Mississippi flag is a “politically correct” act of forgetting history. And yet, the old flag was itself not about remembering history, but about forgetting it. The flag told us to “remember” a retrofitted story about the Mississippi of the Old South, while not mentioning the rape of enslaved women, the beating of enslaved men, or, later, the murder of Medgar Evers and imprisonment of Fannie Lou Hamer during the civil rights era, the killing of Emmett Till, and on and on.
To change the state flag is not about forgetting the past, but about acknowledging it. The song “Dixie” said that “Old times there are not forgotten,” but, in reality, the price of belonging was to do just that, to forget old times or else to sanctify them as what they were not — to, as the Bible forbids, call good evil and evil good.
The symbols matter, especially for a people as rooted as those of us blessed to be born and raised in Mississippi. We know what it is to immediately recognize a line by William Faulkner or Eudora Welty or Natasha Trethewey or Jesmyn Ward and to know, “That’s from one of us.” We know what it is to hear a piece of music from a Robert Johnson or an Elvis Presley or a Tammy Wynette or a B.B. King and know, “This is from one of us.” Being free to embrace all of what Mississippi has to give to the world — while being free to lament all that is awful that has come from our state — is symbolism that points beyond itself, to the possibility of a new day.
Whatever the new Mississippi flag turns out to be, I plan to fly it here at my house, a symbol of a Mississippi that knows how to start over, to try to love again. But I’m going to keep my pieces of the old flag here, too, a symbol of the state I love, weathered but holding together. Those scraps can remind me of the possibility that what we love can still stand, while the hate can be gone with the wind.