Mississippi’s Overdue Reckoning

Mississippi state flag.
Mississippi state flag. Photo: Rogelio V Solis/AP/Shutterstock

At long last, Mississippi lawmakers have decided to abolish the state’s current flag, the only one in the country that still displays the navy jack that has become today’s most recognizable Confederate emblem. A 91-23 House vote on Sunday sent the measure to Governor Tate Reeves, who said he’ll sign it. The design in question has been used to symbolize anti-Black terrorism and white supremacy since its inception. That’s not why it’s coming down.

A unique confluence of factors made Sunday’s vote possible, few of which can be attributed convincingly to large majorities of Mississippians — including legislators — deciding that Black residents who’ve criticized the flag as racist for decades were right all along. On the contrary, public polling from as recently as September 2017 showed widespread support for the banner remaining as is; Chism Strategies found that 49 percent of voters favored the current flag, which has flown in its contemporary iteration since 1894, while 41 percent said it should change and 10 percent were undecided. This was two years after Dylann Roof murdered nine Black parishioners at a church in South Carolina, prompting a nationwide reckoning over Confederate symbols. The debate culminated with the dramatic removal of the battle flag from the statehouse grounds in Columbia; Roof had brandished the emblem in his white-supremacist blog posts and manifesto. In Mississippi, between Roof’s massacre and 2016, nearly two dozen efforts to change the state flag through the legislature failed to make it out of committee. The last time Mississippians voted on the issue reflected the state’s notorious polarization: It’s the Blackest state in the country by population share — 38 percent, compared to 59 percent white — but the electorate is one of America’s least elastic; almost all white Mississippi voters are Republicans and practically all Black ones are Democrats, more or less guaranteeing a perpetual 60-40 split in statewide elections and referendums. Accordingly, voters in 2001 chose to keep the current flag in place by a 64-36 margin. The choice quickly became singular. Two years later, voters in nearby Georgia chose to remove the Confederate battle emblem from theirs, leaving Mississippi’s as the only state flag to retain it.

When George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May, a similar reckoning got under way. Protests and riots erupted across the country; brands, industries, and institutions of varying public import scrambled to one-up each other with displays of solidarity and anti-racism. Mississippi was among several to relitigate an issue that’s caused internal tension for decades. But where white will and legislative obstinance from the GOP had thwarted past efforts to change the flag, today’s sea change gave legislative cover to state Republicans who were on the fence or supported removal — that is to say, those who probably knew that another popular vote would end with the flag remaining as is but feared changing it by other means and looking like they’d capitulated to Black people and liberals.

Sports and the economy were key to that cover. The NCAA announced in mid-June that it was expanding its long-standing Confederate-flag policy; whereas before, the body had prohibited sporting events whose locations are awarded on a predetermined basis — like the annual men’s basketball tournament — from happening in states that flew the Confederate battle flag, it has extended the ban to now include almost all postseason games. The Southeastern Conference, of which several of Mississippi’s biggest schools are a part, made a similar statement, saying it would consider implementing its own ban with similar criteria. Calls to change the flag have since echoed throughout the state’s collegiate-sports Establishment, with administrators and athletic directors at schools like Ole Miss and Mississippi State expressing support. “Because of the NCAA and the SEC, we can point to a quantifiable damage, if you will, that is occurring — a consequence, a punishment,” Phillip Gunn, Republican Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives and a proponent of removing the flag since 2015, told the New York Times. Still, the symbol retains its power. Even economic enticements in the nation’s second-poorest state failed to sway more than a third of Republicans in the state senate, where the measure passed with 14 of its 36 GOP members opposing it. “We firmly believe that this political correctness, this movement we are sensing out there right now to delegitimize our American institutions and our American history, is a movement that’s incredibly dangerous and cannot be appeased,” Chris McDaniel, a Republican state senator, told the Times.

McDaniel’s appeal to heritage under attack by dangerous and unappeasable revolutionary forces is far from unusual in Mississippi, despite Sunday’s vote. The emblem’s normalcy is typically a given: In 2014, then–state commissioner of agriculture and commerce Cindy Hyde-Smith posted Facebook photos of herself at Jefferson Davis’s former home in Biloxi wearing a Confederate soldier’s hat. “Mississippi history at its best!” she wrote. Four years later, she was elected to the U.S. Senate and is a good bet to defend her seat come November. As with most statewide elections, the outcome will probably be decided in a party-line, racially polarized vote. It’s easy to see why. Before he committed to signing Sunday’s measure, even Governor Reeves had adopted a stance of impartial detachment. “I’ve only had one real interest since I entered office when it comes to the flag,” he said last week. “[If] it changes, it should be by a vote of the people.”

The people’s choice seems likely to have been quite different from what’s currently happening. Broadly speaking, the durability of Americans’ renewed attention to racism merits some skepticism; public energy behind recent shifts in sentiment, discourse, and even legislation seems contingent on fleeting and exceptional circumstances, including the coronavirus pandemic and the current occupant of the White House. State flags stand apart in key ways. They’re more difficult to change absent overwhelming political will — Mississippi had to suspend its rules governing the usual procedure for doing so — and redesigns tend to be less incumbent on partisan turnover than normal bills and policies. They can also be co-opted easily; Georgia removed the Confederate battle flag from its state banner in 2003, only to replace it with an unmistakable imitation of the original Confederate national flag, which is less widely known. Sunday’s measure in Mississippi will require a redesign that excludes the current navy jack; there remain more than a dozen alternative Confederate flags from which the new version could, theoretically, draw inspiration. Yet even as conditions abound and public opinion remains split, a new Mississippi flag might be the most sustainable change born of the current reckoning. It required a singular confluence of elements in order to bear fruit. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.

Mississippi’s Overdue Reckoning