New flag, new beginning

Mississippi has retired its state flag bearing an emblem of the Confederacy and a racist past. The act can be a symbol that fresh starts are possible.

A Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol honor guard carefully folds the retired Mississippi state flag after it was raised for the final time in Jackson, Miss., July 1, 2020. The banner was the last state flag with the Confederate battle emblem on it.

During the past six weeks of protest marches across the United States over police brutality and racism, statues of Confederate generals and politicians have fallen. Countless conversations about diversity and equality have been started within companies and newsrooms. Bills have been drafted and police reforms debated.

All the while, Black people in America cling to a fragile hope. They are exhausted by the daily experience of racist behaviors, systemic inequalities, and – perhaps most of all – the constant burden to assert their right to live in a fair and just society. Will anything really change this time?

One answer may have come from an unlikely place: Mississippi.

On July 1 the Magnolia State retired the last state flag to include the Confederate states battle emblem in its design – a blue cross saltire with stars on a red background. A commission will develop a new flag in time for voters to consider it on the November ballot.

Seldom will the creation of a new symbol carry so much healing potential. In a state stained by the country’s darkest threads of slavery, segregation, racist violence, and mass incarceration of Black men, the people of Mississippi have an opportunity to weave in cloth a new statement of equality, liberty, and democracy.

Mississippi hoisted its newly retired state flag 30 years after the Civil War, in 1894, at a time when veterans of the Southern cause were dying off and two years before the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision would enshrine segregation as law for decades to come. 

The 1894 flag was for Black Mississippians a symbol both of terror and economic suppression. More than 500 Black men were lynched under its colors, according to the Tuskegee Institute. It waved as 18 activists were killed in the state during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. It flew as more than 130 Confederate monuments were erected.

The state with the highest African American population by percentage, Mississippi has ranked worst in poverty rates and educational standards among Black people year after year. Between 1920 and 1970, nearly 500,000 Black Americans born in Mississippi fled to St. Louis and Chicago, according to US Census Bureau data. 

But among those who left to find better lives elsewhere, Black writers and artists nonetheless acknowledged the state’s enduring hold on them with lament and longing.

Changing a flag means reimagining the identity of the people it represents. When South Africa replaced apartheid with democracy, its new flag combined the colors of the new ruling African National Congress and those of the previous colonial powers. 

Five years ago New Zealand considered adopting a new flag that would replace the Union Jack with the frond of a silver fern, a plant found only in that island nation, and long seen as a symbol of its identity. It was meant to emphasize indigenous Maori values over the colonial past. Voters opted to retain the old banner, but the national conversation was enlightening.

As the United States moves through a difficult summer of struggle over racism, Mississippi may provide a measure of the nation’s ability to find atonement and reconciliation. The state can draw on the unifying effect of its deep cultural riches, from its music and poetry to its food and football.

Through facing up to centuries of pain and division, Black and white Mississippians can forge an identity of shared affection for the natural beauty and cultural contributions of their state. Fluttering in magnolia-scented breezes, a new emblem of true fellowship would celebrate the dignity and worth of all Americans. 

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