“He that will not reason is a bigot.
He that cannot reason is a fool.
He that dares not reason is a slave.”
In a predictable announcement this week the head of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus, Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes tells the Associated Press that the Legislative Black Caucus will boycott an upcoming meeting of the Southern Legislative Conference in Biloxi. Williams-Barnes says the group voted to boycott the meeting to protest Mississippi’s state flag.
The Legislative Black Caucus hopes the Southern Legislative Conference will join them in pushing the state to remove the banner, as well. But, according to Williams-Barnes the move is designed to put pressure on House Speaker Philip Gunn over the issue of the state flag. This is indeed a head-scratcher since Speaker Gunn was the first statewide elected official to show his support for changing the flag.
The state flag has been flying for over 120-years. It was officially re-adopted after voters approved of the design through a ballot initiative in 2001. Of course, as everyone knows it’s not the whole flag that ticks some people off, it’s just the use of the Confederate Battle Flag in the upper corner.
The Confederate Battle Flag has been used as a sign of southern solidarity and regional pride for decades. It was flown by segregationists to show displeasure with federal enforcement of newly adopted federal civil rights laws in the 1960’s. It has also adorned album art, car tags, subversive merchandise by rap artists, used as a rally banner at sporting events, and probably a few dozen other uses that had nothing to do or say about civil rights, segregation, slavery, the Confederacy or the Civil War.
The renewed push to remove the banner from official use comes in the wake of a young white man who used the Confederate Battle Flag as a prop in selfies to promote his views on white supremacy. This young man went on to kill several black members of a South Carolina church in a racially-motivated incident in 2015 that shocked the nation.
What’s of particular interest to me in all this renewed hand-wringing is how the debate almost always seems to center around what specific groups say the flag “really” means.
History Is More Than Skin Deep
As a youngster I remember my first trip to Vicksburg’s Civil War Memorial Park and being absolutely overwhelmed when I began to decipher the huge numbers of men it took to move so many cannons and supplies–and dirt, man they shoveled a lot of dirt! The thought of the fear that must have been nearly debilitating to young boys not much older than I who picked up their guns to join the fight or protect their homes in the absence of their fathers captivated my mind.
I began pouring through books about the Civil War, and as a young man from the South I wanted to know more about where these events took place in the places nearest to me, those I had seen and been to–or, could most easily get to. It was only by taking an interest in this touchable history that I began to appreciate the southern mannerisms of that era. I also took a particular interest for a while in the architecture and the preserved sites that allowed me to see first hand how these people lived, how the culture and the politics of their time worked. I quickly began to realize the many conveniences I took for granted.
Slavery was depicted in all of these scenes and sites and words. But, I never once thought lesser of those who descended from slaves because of it. I never once thought slavery or segregation should still be practiced. Instead, I developed a higher appreciation for where we as a region and a state had come from, and what we had come through, to get where we were. It’s something I’ve carried with me ever since.
I was happy to wave my little “rebel” flag because my great uncle instilled in me a love of Ole Miss football, and because I was a southerner, not because I hated anyone or thought less of the black people I was with every day.
History Rejects Personality Politics In Favor Of The Prepared
There are comparisons of the Confederate Battle Flag to the German Nazi swastika. The latter is a symbol of a defeated political ideology frozen in time. To fly or honor such a symbol or to pay tribute to those who died fighting in support of it is something one doesn’t do. So, the reasoning goes, the Confederate Battle Flag and memorials and symbols of the “divisive reminders of segregation and slavery” should also be removed, “placed in a museum.”
References to German Nazism and the signs and symbols of that day were officially and decisively removed following World War II and widely accepted as unwelcome in public displays. The same obviously can’t be said of Confederate memorials and symbols. Should these memorials and displays have been forbidden in the South? That would be debatable if we lived in the United States in the late 1860’s and in the subsequent years as these events were taking place. But, we didn’t and we don’t. As such, the history of these symbols and memorials have taken on a deeper historic meaning than the snapshots of history that interest groups want to use to define them. There’s a big difference between rebuilding a nation, and healing one.
Defining history as only one thing or only another may be the way some people refuse to have more difficult discussions. After all, it’s easier to blame ones failures on a long dead soldier who’s depiction in a memorial can’t talk back and speak of his own; and it’s easier to convince oneself of the likelihood of being smarter, faster, happier, richer, or more appreciated by others if it weren’t for a flag or a symbol that “creates” doubt.
For her part, Rep. Williams-Barnes says this of what the Legislative Black Caucus wants in a flag:
“What we’re really wanting is a flag that charts a different future for our state, that charts a different future for our children and that is about a vision that unites people in the state with each other as well as unites Mississippi with other states in the nation,” she said.
If we could only depend on the inanimate object to do the work for us that would be great. But flags don’t chart the future. Individuals do that for themselves. And visions don’t unite those people who boycott and don’t even bother to show up.
And what flag does Rep. Williams-Barnes think will chart a different future and inspire a united vision? She introduced it in a bill in the 2017 Session of the Mississippi Legislature. House Bill 1281 died in committee. It would have changed the official flag of the State of Mississippi to the following:
* * * with width two-thirds (2/3) of
its length; with the union (canton) to be square, in width
two-thirds (2/3) of the width of the flag; the ground of the union
to be old glory blue, and emblazoned with one (1) large white
five-pointed star pointed upward; the field to be white, bordered
with red on the fly side and centered upon the field to be the
design of a large green magnolia tree in full bloom; this being
the official flag of the State of Mississippi before the flag
adopted by the Mississippi Legislature in the 1894 Special
Session, which is known as the “Magnolia Flag”.
What is this “Magnolia Flag”? It’s the exact same flag Mississippi adopted in 1861 . . . the year the state seceded from the Union . . . to join the newly formed Confederacy.
So, there you have it. A state lawmaker making political headlines for Mississippi and leading a legislative caucus can’t even be bothered to know some very basic history about the state where she is responsible for creating laws. And it’s the flag that is supposedly an embarrassment to the state?
The world is full of people pushing for charting a new future, and the importance of moving on, not living in the past, super new administrative advances, and the like. But history is the only certainty from which we learn. The future is a much easier place to be for those who haven’t studied the lessons of the past, and therefore aren’t prepared to make an impact on the present.
Rep. Williams-Barnes appears to need a remedial course.