JACKSON, Miss. -- Mississippi is at the crossroads. Again.
In the wake of Alabama and South Carolina having removed the Confederate battle flag from their state capitol grounds, Mississippi stands conspicuously alone with that emblem on its state flag.
When this state last came to the crossroads about its flag in 2001, its voters chose the road backward in a referendum that rejected a new flag. At that time, I wrote in a New York Times op ed that the vote could, paradoxically, be seen as a sign of progress, because those who supported keeping the Confederate symbol made their argument based on a mythology that the Confederacy had nothing to do with slavery. While this view is historical nonsense (Mississippi's 1861 declaration of the causes of the state's secession begins with the words "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery"), it was a step forward from actively defending slavery and racism, as so many white Mississippians had readily done a few decades before.
Now, fourteen years later, clinging to a feel-good myth instead of facing historical truth can no longer be seen as anything other than outrageous. The social studies curriculum mandated by the Texas Board of Education that misinforms students by indicating that slavery was "a side issue" in the Civil War demonstrates how imperative it is that the historical truth be faced up to by everyone. How far into denying that historical truth some people are is suggested by the fact that I have seen both of these decals on the rear windows of the same vehicles:
Yet, while the only Democratic and only African-American member of the state's congressional delegation, Rep. Bennie Thompson, offered a resolution that would remove the Mississippi flag from all areas of the U.S. House and some prominent Mississippi Republicans, including Senators Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker and Philip Gunn, the Speaker of the state House of Representatives, have come out in favor of changing the state flag, both Governor Phil Bryant and Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves, who seek reelection this November, are using the 2001 referendum as an excuse for keeping the Confederate symbol. Mr. Bryant says he does not "believe the Mississippi Legislature will act to supersede the will of the people on this issue." That might seem reasonable, but the choice of an emblem that represents hatred and oppression to a very large (nearly 40 percent) minority of Mississippi's population as the symbol of the entire state is not something that should be decided by a majority vote. It is the responsibility of the state's political leaders to do the right thing, as their counterparts in South Carolina have done.
The Flag IS about Our Heritage -- The Worst Parts of It
Those who oppose changing the flag are right when they insist that the Confederate battle emblem is a symbol of Mississippi's heritage: it is a symbol of the worst of the state's heritage: slavery, treason, hatred, segregation, and brutal racism.
But that background of evil is far from being the entirety of Mississippi's heritage. The way forward for the state is to be found in giving a different meaning to the slogan of the supporters of the rebel flag, "Heritage, not Hate." Rather than continuing to make the worst and most divisive portion of the state's heritage the face Mississippi presents to the outside world, why not emphasize the best and most inclusive parts of our heritage?
Why Not Use a Symbol of the Best of Our Heritage?
Ten years ago, a public service advertising campaign called "Mississippi, Believe It!" was launched to counter the negative image of the state by bringing attention to the enormous positive achievements by Mississippians-across racial lines-in music, literature (think William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Eudora Welty, Margaret Walker Alexander, Tennessee Williams, Walker Percy, Richard Ford, John Grisham, Beth Henley, Greg Iles, and so many more), entertainment, and other fields. Its motivation came when a 12 year-old from Connecticut asked the white executive of a communications firm based in Jackson who was sitting next to him on a plane if he "still saw the KKK on the streets every day" and whether he "hates all black people." The businessman saw the need to change the perception of Mississippi, both inside and outside the state.
The most striking of that ad campaign's slogans is: "No Black. No White. Just the Blues." That is the ideal and the future towards which Mississippians should be striving, instead of emphasizing a hate-filled past that might be described as: "Just White. No Black."
Mississippi's current license plate accurately proclaims the state to be the "Birthplace of America's Music" (if you question that claim, consider: Jimmie Rodgers, Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Elvis Presley, Bobby Rush, Sam Cooke, Tammy Wynette, Jimmy Buffett, Faith Hill ...) and features a guitar surrounded by the words "Celebrating Mississippi's Creative Culture." That is the positive, unifying message about the state's heritage that should be put forward, but it is completely undermined by a flag that celebrates the negative, divisive side of our heritage. Why not make something like it the new state flag?
The wonderful portion of our heritage was on full display this weekend as a huge crowd assembled at the State Capitol for the first Mississippi Book Festival. During one of its sessions, John Grisham pointed to the connection between the side of Mississippi's heritage represented by the current state flag and the amazing creative side: "Why do so many stories, as Willie [Morris] said, come from this tortured locale? I think it is because there are so many damned crazy people here."
To continue to represent the state with a symbol of division and hatred, or to adopt a new one that unites the people of Mississippi-that is the question. The proper answer is obvious.
Let's replace the symbol that divides the state's people with one that unites us, displaying the portion of our heritage of which we can all be proud. Maybe something like this:
It's not about "political correctness" (in the context of current Mississippi politics, supporting the inclusion of the Rebel standard on the state flag is the politically "correct" thing to do). It's about moral correctness; it's about historical correctness; it's about common decency.
At This Crossroads, Mississippi Must Dissolve Its Pact with the Devil
The Crossroads image is prominent in the "Just the Blues" part of Mississippi's heritage. Legend has it that it was at a crossroads in the Delta in the 1930s that bluesman Robert Johnson met Satan at midnight and traded his soul for the ability to play guitar like no one else.
The Crossroads at which this state now finds itself is one where the decision must be made finally to dissolve the pact that was long ago made with the devil, in the form of racism and oppression, and thereby retrieve Mississippi's soul.
Auditioning for "Profiles in Cowardice"
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and that state's legislature had the courage, after a debate highlighted by an impassioned speech against the flag by State Rep. Jenny Anderson Horne, a descendant of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, to do the right thing. When the flag came down in Columbia, the state experienced a long-overdue catharsis. Rather than facilitating a similar positive experience for Mississippi, Gov. Bryant and Lt. Gov. Reeves have been auditioning for inclusion in a book titled "Profiles in Cowardice."
NOTE: The flag backgrounds have been added to make a point.
The contrast between the bravery of Ms. Haley and Ms. Horne and the spinelessness of Mississippi's state leaders is glaring. It points toward this directive:
"Woman Up, Mr. Bryant and Mr. Reeves! Stop cowering and placing your personal political interests above your state's future."
Robert S. McElvaine teaches history at Millsaps College. He is currently completing a novel and an extensive history of the year 1964.