Mississippi’s Goddamn Racist Flag Is History
Mississippi has finally accepted that the Civil War is over and the Confederacy lost, as losers do.
Gov. Tate Reeves, who's not just a Republican but a white man named “Tate," signed a bill Tuesday that will retire the last state flag to bear the standard of white supremacists and traitors. Black folks have learned to live with the former in places of honor but don't make us endure both.
The state legislature passed the bill Sunday but I reserved my celebrations. A lot can happen in a few days. South Carolina, after all, declared its intent to secede from the Union just three days after Abraham Lincoln was elected.
But the bill reached Reeves's desk and Mississippi remains intact, perhaps more united than ever or at all.
"This is not a political moment to me, but a solemn occasion to lead our Mississippi family to come together to be reconciled and to move on," Reeves, a Republican, said before he signed the legislation.
This is what it’s all about. Love always prevails. @SenDTSimmons we’re one step closer to making history! #msleg https://t.co/e3FHiEv34j— Joel R. Carter, Jr. (@Joel R. Carter, Jr.) 1593299079.0
The current state's first flag, which was adopted during the Civil War, was
simply a magnolia tree against a white field with the Bonnie Blue Flag in the corner. The existing flag debuted in 1894, almost 30 years after the Confederacy was defeated, but it arguably symbolized white supremacy's dominance. The state had steadily passed a series of restrictive “black codes" that reduced Black residents to slaves in all but name.
For instance, Black Mississippians were only allowed to rent land in cities, so they couldn't make any money through farming. They were also required to present written proof of employment, each January, under penalty of arrest for vagrancy. “Vagrants" often became forced plantation labor or, you know, “slaves." The state even took Black children from their families for BS reasons and forced them to work as unpaid labor. The all-white police and state militia — usually former Confederate veterans — were more than happy to enforce Black people's second-class status.
A commission is charged with developing a new flag design, without the mocking Confederate emblem but with the phrase "In God, We Trust." Black folks in Mississippi are down with God so that seems a fair compromise.
Back in 2015, Confederate apologist Kitsaa Stevens had proposed amending the state Constitution to make the current flag permanent. (The measure failed.) Stevens argued that the Mississippi flag didn't represent white supremacy but rather “reconciliation" between the (white) Confederacy and (white) Union. I don't know for a fact that Stevens is a racist but this is what someone who is very dumb and very racist would say.
Stevens worked at Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library in Biloxi. (Davis was never a US president. He was a make-believe president of a racist traitor state — sort of like Donald Trump.) However, Davis's actual great-great-grandson, Bertram Hayes-Davis, who we happen to have right here, supports the change.
"It is historic and heritage-related, there are a lot of people who look at it that way, and God bless them for that heritage. So put it in a museum and honor it there or put it in your house, but the flag of Mississippi should represent the entire population, and I am thrilled that we're finally going to make that change," Hayes-Davis told CNN's Ana Cabrera on "Newsroom" Saturday.
The "heritage but not hate" crowd will argue that we're "erasing history," but most couldn't tell you about the black codes or the Hanging Bridge, where a white mob lynched two Black men and their pregnant sisters. White Mississippians for more than a century stared at the state flag and only thought of cotillions and mint juleps. Don't tell Black people about preserving history. We wear its scars, but we'll heal with the memories of what we love about Mississippi: It's the birthplace of Ruby Bridges, Medgar Evers, Ida B. Wells, Thelma Houston, and James Earl Jones's voice, along with the rest of him. It's where Muddy Waters first played the blues.
Years later, in Chicago, Waters would defiantly sing, "I'm a man!" — no, "B,"O," child, "Y" — after growing up in a state that refused to treat him like one. Those days are over, and Mississippi is ready to raise a new flag.
James Earl Jones on growing up in Mississippi, 1969: CBC Archives | CBCwww.youtube.com
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. Once, he wrote a novel called “Mahogany Slade,” which you should read or at least buy. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."