When Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves signed a bill to retire the state flag Tuesday night, it was a truly historic and unlikely moment. The flag, which features a Confederate emblem, has long served as a reminder of the state’s central role in secession and the Civil War.
But more than that, in a state with the highest percentage of Black Americans in the U.S., the flag had come to symbolize white Mississippians’ refusal to cede any real political, social or economic power.
The flag, which features a Confederate emblem, has long served as a reminder of the state’s central role in secession and the Civil War.
The Mississippi Legislature adopted the current flag in 1894, nearly 30 years after the Civil War, and just four years after the state revised its Constitution to include Jim Crow laws mandating segregated schools and poll taxes and literacy tests as prerequisites for voting. These restrictions were so effective that when the 1965 Voting Rights Act went into law, only a small fraction of the state’s Black population was registered to vote. The 1894 flag was thus a visual representation of a Constitution that codified the “redemption” of the state from federal reconstruction. The flag adoption also coincided with the heyday of racial violence in Mississippi when white mobs lynched dozens of African Americans each year.
The flag’s symbolism seemed ever clearer during the civil rights movement, when Mississippi became known as the state in which racial progress was the hardest to achieve. Among the most notable atrocities were the murders of NAACP field agent Medgar Evers in 1963, and three young civil rights workers during a statewide voter registration drive the next year known as the Freedom Summer.
Mississippi also pioneered seemingly less brutal, but utterly reprehensible forms of massive resistance to racial equality. Robert “Tut” Patterson, a former captain of the Mississippi State University football team, started the first White Citizens’ Council in the Delta town of Indianola, shortly after the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision mandated desegregation of America’s public schools. The state even had its own KGB-like intelligence organization, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. Overseen by the governor, it created files on over 87,000 people suspected of involvement in civil rights activities, and harnessed the power of state and local law enforcement and everyday citizens to pressure and intimidate them.
Since the 1890s, the Confederate-emblazoned flag has been a fitting symbol for white Mississippians’ intransigence toward perceived federal interference into their way of life. While many Americans came to see Confederate iconography as distasteful, racist and backwards, white Mississippians disagreed. A 2001 referendum to change the state flag failed by a margin of nearly 2 to 1.
But the flag is hardly the only icon of the state’s Confederate past. The University of Mississippi’s halting attempts to remove Confederate iconography from its campus culture is telling. In the 2010s, in the face of much alumni opposition, the university changed its mascot from the “Rebel” to the “Black Bear,” and then to the “Landsharks.” In 2016, the university ceased playing the song “Dixie” at sporting events, but it has yet to relinquish its moniker, “Ole Miss,” a vernacular term for a plantation mistress.
None of this reflects, however, the many Mississippians, both white and Black, who have long disapproved of their state flag and its celebration of the state’s obstinance to racial change. To those people who love the Magnolia State, “not for the virtues, but despite the faults,” to paraphrase William Faulkner, the flag was an embarrassment, a poor reflection of all the richness and human goodwill that abounds in their state.
After 2015 and 2017, when Dylann Roof in Charleston and the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville underscored the connection between contemporary racism and Confederate symbolism, these Mississippians renewed their call for changing the flag. But the opposition from state lawmakers to such a move was strong, and no one was surprised when just two months ago, Reeves re-dedicated April as Confederate Heritage Month.
Their killings provided an opening for people across the country to rethink and admit the connection between historical statues and iconography with systemic and individual racism.
Then came Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Their killings provided an opening for people across the country to rethink and admit the connection between historical statues and iconography with systemic and individual racism in modern America.
Pressure to jettison the flag came from within and outside of the state, building throughout June. Then last week, with bewildering speed for a state that often seems to move at a glacial pace, both houses of the Legislature agreed to a bill to remove the flag.
After pausing to celebrate, Mississippians should ponder whether the willingness to change a symbol translates into the harder work of dismantling 150 years of white supremacist policy. Pessimists may be justified in thinking it will not. In an impoverished, unhealthy state, African Americans are poorer and sicker than whites. Just last week, a health expert examined the state’s mismanaged penitentiary at Parchman, whose inmate population is more than two-thirds African American, and declared the conditions “subhuman and deplorable.” The state’s public education system still suffers from the loss of buy-in from many white citizens who founded a robust system of segregationist “academies” after 1970 and continue to support them.
Will white Mississippians who took generations to understand and revoke the connection between the state’s identity and racial oppression take the next and much harder steps to root out current practices that perpetuate racial inequality in the Magnolia State? Only time will tell, but what has happened in the last month shows that the improbable is not the impossible.