In recent years, a spate of Confederate statues and other Confederate monuments have been coming down across the Southern United States that once made up the Confederacy in the American Civil War. In just one week in May 2017, statues of the former Confederate president Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee were taken down in New Orleans – two of at least 60 monuments to the Confederacy removed since the summer of 2015.
But for now, a plurality of voters in one Southern state is clinging to the ultimate Confederate symbol – the flag. This past April, voters in Mississippi – the last state to feature the Confederate Battle Flag Design in its state flag – had the opportunity to retire this emblem of pride in their Confederate past. They rejected it.
The current flag features the Confederate flag (with 13 white stars for the 13 states that comprised the Confederacy) in its top left corner. The proposed new design had 20 stars, to symbolize Mississippi’s status as the 20th state in America.
At stake in the debate over whether the flag design should be retired and replaced were issues of historical memory to one side, and of racism, oppression, and prejudice to the other.
“I knew the people of Mississippi felt very strongly about their flag and their heritage,” Mississippian Earl Faggert told ABC News, adding that when he looked at the flag, he saw “honor, duty, courage, sacrifice, loyalty, and devotion.” Faggert is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group of descendants of Confederate soldiers that claims its mission is to “preserv[e] the history and legacy of these heroes, so future generations can understand the motives that animated the Southern Cause.”
“It’s just a piece of cloth that flies on a stick,” Mississippi Attorney General Greg Stewart said – although his strenuous advocacy to keep the flag unchanged makes it seem as though he felt a bit more strongly about it than that.
Faggert and Stewart are both white, and as such have not inherited the legacy of slavery that the Confederacy stood to protect. Unsurprisingly, many African-Americans do not see aspirational values looking at the flag, nor do they see it as a mere piece of cloth.
Carlos Moore, a black resident of Mississippi, is taking his quest to have the flag changed to the United States Supreme Court, arguing that the flag represents “state-sanctioned hate speech” that violates the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee. A federal district judge and an appeals court have already rejected Moore’s case. But the judge noted that although there is no legal right to be free from anxiety over a state’s display of historical racism, that does not mean the state is not displaying it.
Though the flag will continue to fly unchanged for now, the state is far from unanimously behind it. Some cities, counties, and universities – including the University of Mississippi, the state’s flagship school – refuse to fly the flag because of its Confederate imagery. Many of them chose to stop flying the flag after the 2015 shooting of nine black parishioners in South Carolina by an avowed white supremacist who posted photographs of himself on Facebook holding a Confederate flag.
Like Mississippi, South Carolina was fractured for decades over whether the Confederate flag, which flew over the State House in recent years, should come down. After the church shooting, opposition to the flag grew to the extent where the state legislature voted to change the law to allow the flag to be removed.
One hopes a similar tragedy will not be required in Mississippi.