BY: B. Keith Plunkett | UCF Staff @Keithplunkett
At this point we’ve heard just about every conceivable angle on the politics of Mississippi’s state flag. We’re the last state left in the country to officially fly the image of the confederate battle flag on our state flag, unless you consider–as some are now beginning to–the six other states that have “subtle references” to the confederacy.
Yes, not only are statues and other remnants of the Civil War in play for removal, but now so are any objects that can be misconstrued as a “subtle reference” that might offend.
Throughout the past month of very public and many times uncivil debate, we’ve heard the confederate battle emblem referred to lovingly as a part of southern heritage and a symbol of southern pride. We’ve also heard it referred to as a symbol of racism, hatred and oppression.
In between these two extremes there have been a variety of commentary of defense and penitence, some very thoughtful explanations and more than a little bit of idiocy. Like the commentary by Alan Lange, for example, who compares the state flag to a “bad tattoo” comparable to the one etched on the face of Mike Tyson, as if the state of Mississippi just woke up with a hangover 121 years after we started in on a horrendous drunk, and now we are expected to suddenly look in the mirror and groan in unison our collective regret.
Lange is not really known for digging too deep into topics so long as the conclusion arrived at fits his ability to demonize the political opponents of his benefactors, a fact most readers of Mississippi politics have discovered all too well in the past couple of years.
Does anyone remember that this wasn’t even an issue that was being talked about just a month ago before some mentally unstable kid committed a horrible act 700-miles away?
This one individual act in South Carolina provided the kind of opportunity race-baiters and political provocateurs salivate over. Similarly to Lange’s “bad tattoo”, very few others who have taken the position of removing the banner have offered anything more than the thinnest veneer of reasoning based primarily on appearances.
Deception and Political Correctness
The truth of the state flag, any flag for that matter, is about way more than curb appeal. Unfortunately, beyond the display, many just don’t deal well with the complexity of serious discussion, especially a discussion that suggests a deeper problem revealed in society’s penchant for knee jerk reactions, and that maybe we’ve allowed a rottenness to eat away at something more meaningful.
Better to sweep out all of those old reminders than be forced into a deeper more consequential and potentially more productive examination, because that’s too difficult. We’d rather fool ourselves and others. Being forced into a worthwhile deliberation of why something should or shouldn’t be done may also lead to an admission that there have been and continue to be glaring problems and repeated mistakes that we all too often overlook out of political expedience and favoritism. To do that, to be real in today’s political world . . . well, that is unthinkable.
That’s where the political correctness comes in, the deception begins and where pitchmen attempt to divide and conquer for their own benefit.
The outrage industry is hard at work here to be sure. Try to discuss a serious point with any of these purveyors of political postulations and they disappear in the blink of an eye. It gets way too complicated beyond the sound bites, the exhibition and the shouting of epithets and childish names.
Redemption and Social Progress
The closest thing to good reasoning to change the state flag I’ve heard is that we’re the last of the states to incorporate the confederate emblem, which is really no good reason at all.
Beleaguered elected officials are just as likely to fall for the premise that if we just will change the flag then maybe it’ll shut everybody up. They shouldn’t give in to that temptation. History and common sense show us that is not a cause that very often leads to the desired effect.
And here’s my favorite: “Changing the flag is the Christian thing to do.”
With all apologies to Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, who is somewhere in the back of the crowd of gawkers watching the fire after he himself lit the match, his interpretation of this, a political issue, as a position all “good Christians” should take is questionable, if not insulting. He certainly doesn’t speak for all Christians. I don’t find anywhere in my good book the biblical tenet of forgetfulness nor pandering.
Forgiveness? Yes. Honesty? Absolutely. And that oh-so-important but seemingly long forgotten lesson that is the real reason for the progress of humanity over the course of millennia, Redemption.
Yes, redemption. What did you think was the reason behind the success of mankind? The Keebler Elves? Oompa-Loompas? The thousands of government workers piling out of office buildings in Jackson and Washington at 4:45 on any given weekday?
We’re not here today because humans have proven we can accomplish perfection on our own. Society is not where we are today because of the intelligence of mankind. We have accomplished so much because we stand on the shoulders of all of those who made the mistakes that came before us, those who were willing to do more than promote the appearance of progress. But rather, those who were willing to screw up, reevaluate, pray and then buckle down and keep plugging away to make things better for everyone.
All Of Us
So what and who does Mississippi’s state flag represent?
Is it the risks taken by the pioneers of agricultural? Or the lives of the poor and the enslaved who worked the fields in years past?
Is it the mass of wealth evidenced by the ostentatious homes of the antebellum era that now welcome tourists from across the globe? Or the depth of disparity between the most wealthy and the most poor during the heyday?
Is it Emmitt Till’s lifeless body chained to an old exhaust fan at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River? Or the courage of Mose Wright to stand up and point out the killers in court? Is it the unwillingness of an all-white jury to convict Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam of the crime? Or is it how the entire community, when faced with the truth afterward, boycotted the killers into financial and personal ruin?
Is it James Ford Seale and Edgar Ray Killen? Or is it Vernon Dahmer and Medgar Evers?
Is it the three civil rights workers murdered and buried in a dam in Neshoba County during Freedom Summer? Or is it the work of those who finally brought the killers to justice?
Is it Jim Crow? Or is it the marches that eventually led to the adopted systems downfall?
Is it James Meredith flanked by security to attend class at Ole Miss? Or is it his courage to go through with it and the eventual acceptance of him as an ambassador from our state to the world for having done so?
Is it a young Riley King forced to work his fingers to the bone throughout the week for a chance to walk and hitch a ride several miles into downtown Memphis every weekend? Or is it his dogged determination that led to him becoming the greatest bluesman the world has ever known?
Is it the Vietnamese immigrants who sought out a better life and who settled on the gulf coast to work the shrimp boats? The generations of loggers from the Pine Belt working through hotter-than-hell summers? Elvis? Faulkner? Welty? Soul food? Dinner on the grounds? Homecoming? Magnolias? Mud? Love of the Confederacy? Treason? Heritage? Hate? Racism?
Add your own and then ask this one simple question: Which of these is it exactly that the Mississippi state flag represents?
Here’s my answer: All of the above, which is exactly why I believe the state flag should remain just as it is.
Redemption Is What Faith And Hope In The Future Is All About
Confederate Lt. General Nathan Bedford Forrest was reportedly the first grand wizard of the KKK. As might be expected, his memory and any reference to him has also been under fire lately. His portrait was recently removed from a Forrest County office building, and the Memphis, TN City Council just voted–no kidding–to have his body dug up and a statue of him removed from that city.
Think about that for a moment. They voted to dig up his body!
Yet in 1875, after leaving violence in his wake for much of his life and two years before his final breath, Forrest was invited to address a meeting of one of the earliest black civil rights organizations in Memphis.
Here is what he told the crowd of black citizens gathered there to hear him that day:
Ladies and Gentlemen, I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the Southern states. I accept it more particularly as it comes from a colored lady, for if there is any one on God’s earth who loves the ladies I believe it is myself. (Immense applause and laughter.) I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to elevate every man, to depress none.
I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. I have not said anything about politics today. I don’t propose to say anything about politics. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office. I did not come here to make you a long speech, although invited to do so by you. I am not much of a speaker, and my business prevented me from preparing myself. I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us. When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment. Many things have been said about me which are wrong, and which white and black persons here, who stood by me through the war, can contradict. Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I’ll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand.”
Where is this tidbit of history in our current conversation? Delegated to the trash bin. It doesn’t fit the narrative. It might make someones head explode because it confuses the senses of those who want to blame, label and deceive.
I believe ALL Mississippians should support keeping the state flag as it is regardless of ethnicity or station in life, not because it stands for any one thing in particular over any other but because it represents all of these things and so many more. Moreover, it represents our capacity to forgive and be forgiven.
To look at the Mississippi state flag is to see the pain and anguish of over a century of coming to terms with past sins and simultaneously celebrating huge steps forward. It is to see a present that, for all it’s imperfections, is better for our people having gone through the pain. It is to see a future where there is nothing we can’t overcome. To see the flag is to see, not an example of what is wrong with racial discourse, but of what it is like to go through the worst of the worst, to come out the other side and to keep plugging away.
It is a lesson that we are all capable of unspeakable horrors and also heroic actions of kindness and love. Maybe it is our unpredictable nature that scares some people, people who thrive on controlling the uncontrollable. It shouldn’t scare anyone. It should inspire everyone. It shows us that individually and collectively, we are all redeemable and worthy of rebuilding and renewal.
Mississippi’s flag is a symbol of our unique and incredible story of redemption. It seems unthinkable to me that after all our state has been through we would now deny our future generations the valuable lesson it provides.
Keith Plunkett is the Policy and Communications Director for the United Conservatives Fund. He has worked on communications and policy issues with a range of public officials from aldermen to Congressmen, and a variety of businesses, government agencies and non-profits. He serves or has served as a board member of several non-profit, civic and political organizations. Contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Keithplunkett