Someday, I think Southerners are going to look back on the whole confederate flag controversy with a good deal of chagrin and embarrassment. And there are plenty of us who already find the flying of the confederate flag over state buildings to be antiquated and unnecessarily divisive. I find it somewhat overwhelming that this simple symbol is so pervasive in the post-Civil Rights era, and that we can’t just take it down with a minimum of fuss.
Mississippi is the only state in the union that still features the Confederate Battle Flag as part of its official flag. Georgia, that bastion of liberal ideology, adopted a new flag in 2003.
Changing the state flag sure seems like a no-brainer, but instead of enacting any of several proposed laws to remove the Stars and Bars (as well as rejecting proposed legislation that would withhold funding from Public universities who refuse to fly it), the Governor has instead proclaimed April Confederate Heritage Month.
This was followed several days later by some good old-fashioned anonymous cross burning.
Reactions to the little bonfire were very telling. “Who would do that?” asked some of my white friends, incredulously. “I can’t believe anyone would do that.” There were even some protests that it wasn’t a burning cross at all, but a burning “T.” Mounted in a posthole. Spontaneously combusting. In the middle of Mississippi.
The great shock that some white people feel over the burning of the cross is a special kind of racism born out of a possibly benevolent effort to forget our past. Stories of hangings of family members in downtown Jackson get passed down to younger generations, but white families do not share these stories. Whether this is about shame or about a war they have lost may depend on the family, but either way, there are real trees here that had real bodies hanging from them not so long ago, and it is my privilege that I tend not to think about that when I stand in the shade.
This does not excuse me from speaking out against the flag, but frankly, those who believe confederate heritage, and by this of course they mean white confederate heritage, is somehow more important than a small gesture of reconciliation are beyond my reach. I don’t have a lot to say to them. Instead, I must appeal to the apathetic, those who don’t think it really matters either way.
This is a harder sell than you might think. In 2001, a non-binding referendum was introduced that gave Mississippians the opportunity to change the flag, but only a third voted to get rid of the confederate symbolism.
Things have changed since then, of course. After the June church shooting of a Historic AME Church in South Carolina, new attention was brought to the fact that the confederate flag is used as a symbol of racial hatred. Why this was news, I’m not sure, but Dylann Roof, the alleged murderer, was found to have quite a collection of pictures of himself with confederate flags displayed like status symbols, and this hit a chord in some people. This is not who we are.
Still, while a vocal minority cry out in protest, others refuse to budge. “Why are my black friends not angry about this?” Complained a facebook post. Well, maybe it’s because that just because it has finally occurred to white people that the flag is racist, this doesn’t mean that black people are suddenly obligated to change their priorities in their fight against the 72 other racist things they need to deal with before breakfast.
I still think it’s important. That it matters. It matters because people are still burning crosses, and we need to take a stand that this is no longer acceptable behavior no matter what side of the war your people fought on. The flag has to come down. And it will come down. This question is when, and what has to happen first to facilitate its removal? Will it go quietly? Will the government respond to threats of economic boycotts from outside companies? Will we have another opportunity to vote on how we want the state to be represented? Will public institutions and private businesses, one by one, simply choose not to fly the flag? Will the courts be involved? What will it take for us to simply do the right thing?