Changing the Flag Won’t Change History, But It Might Change the Future

Mississippi should change its state flag. The confederate emblem embedded in the current flag celebrates defeat and defiance. It is a pervasive emblem of oppression for Mississippi’s Black citizens, nearly 40 percent of the state’s population. It prompts mockery and derision from visitors, whether sports teams or politicians or performers. Flags should represent the best qualities of a state, not the worst. Continuing to fly a flag that is so divisive and offensive makes no sense.

Changing the flag won’t erase Mississippi’s history. It will still be the state where Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers was gunned down in his driveway in 1963. And it will still be the state that waited more than 30 years to bring Evers’ killer to justice. It will still be the state that did nothing when a 14-year-old boy was brutally lynched based on a lie told by a white woman. It will still be the state that took more than 40 years to prosecute anyone for the murders of three Civil Rights workers, whose only crime was registering Black voters. It will still be the state where police fired into a crowd of students at Jackson State University in 1970, just 10 days after the Kent State killings. Jackson police injured dozens and killed two men, one a law student, husband, and father, and the other a high school senior. No one was ever held accountable for their deaths. It will still be the state that waited 148 years to ratify the 13th Amendment, the one that outlaws slavery.

I could go on.

I grew up in Mississippi. I was raised in a house just about 10 miles from where Medgar Evers was assassinated and 12 miles from Jackson State University. I was two weeks away from my first birthday when the Jackson State killings occurred. My first job post-college was in a town 10 miles from where Emmett Till was murdered. None of this is abstract to me. I haven’t lived in Mississippi in 30 years, but I still feel like a Mississippian. It is not the sort of place you can just leave behind.

So the politicians shouting about heritage and history needn’t worry. Mississippi’s history is hard to forget, even when lawmakers and educators work to bury it or rewrite it. But Mississippi has other stories to tell, as well.

The Stennis Flag, now known as the “Hospitality Flag” is already being flown by some businesses and cities in Mississippi.

Mississippi is the birthplace of some of the most creative, intelligent, and talented people in the world. It is a place that has birthed countless musicians, writers, performers, and chefs. The world would be less vibrant without Mississippians. B.B. King was born in Mississippi. So was Elvis Presley and Jimmy Buffett and Robert Johnson and Leeann Rimes and Charley Pride and Bo Diddley and Leontyne Price and Faith Hill and Steve Azar. Seriously, if you’re a fan of blues or country or pop or opera or rock music, you’re probably a fan of a Mississippian.

Don’t get me started on the writers. There’s Faulkner, of course, and Eudora Welty, but also Angie Thomas, Kiese Laymon, Jesmyn Ward, Richard Wright, Elizabeth Spencer, Ellen Gilchrist, Shelby Foote, Anne Moody, Donna Tartt, Nevada Barr, Greg Iles, John Grisham, Tennessee Williams, Natasha Tretheway and on and on. Fiction, non-fiction, screenwriters, poets, and historians: Mississippi has birthed more writers than even I can count.

Actors? How about Fred Armisen, Morgan Freeman, Parker Posy, Sela Ward, Tig Notaro, and Oprah Winfrey. Mississippians, every one.

And I could go on about athletes and chefs and dancers and painters and sculptors, but you get the idea.

The Mississippi flag should be the sort of flag that every Mississippian would be proud to wave. The current flag does nothing to inspire pride or patriotism. It doesn’t represent the best of Mississippi. It is a reminder of the worst moments in the state’s history and a signal that those days are not over.

It’s possible that the Mississippi legislature will bring the current flag up for discussion and even a vote as early as today. Recent polls show that most Mississippians support changing the flag. The state’s university leaders and others have come out in support of changing the flag. Even the Baptist church supports retiring the old flag. But too many of the state’s politicians—particularly Gov. Tate Reeves and State Sen. Chris McDaniel—lack the will or the nerve to do the right thing. That’s too bad. Because as long as Mississippi clings to the symbols of the past it will remain firmly stuck there. Mississippi and Mississippians deserve better.

Tiffany Quay Tyson
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Tiffany Quay Tyson