PLUNKETT: The Trouble With Not Knowing, Or Caring, About History

By Keith Plunkett | May 4th, 2017 at 3:45 am

BY: Keith Plunkett / Managing Editor

Keith Plunkett is the Policy and Communications Director for the United Conservatives Fund, and the Founder and Publisher of MississippiPEP.com.

Filed Under: Civil Rights, Contributor, Culture, Democrats, Feature Stories, History, Keith Plunkett, Legislature, Mississippi, Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus, Mississippi PEP, Mississippi State House, MS State Government, Opinion, Politics, Progressivism, Race, State Flag

 

“He that will not reason is a bigot.
He that cannot reason is a fool.
He that dares not reason is a slave.”
~William Drummond


 

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.

  • William H Smith

    That’s an interesting history lesson, Keith. I join you in being a proud southerner, whose forefathers fought and died in the War, whose heroes are men such as Robert. E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, who resists the efforts to discredit these good men, and who rejects the call to pretend that the War never happened (as in my hometown, “The City of Five Flags” and the opposition to continuing to acknowledge the City was under the Confederate government). After the War one effort to re-incorporate South into the United States was allow the South to have a certain pride in her heritage and to include men such as Lee in the pantheon American heroes. The War happened and the country was eventually reunited. One of the ways this was promoted was by allowing Southerners not to feel themselves a vanquished people living in a subjugated section of the Country.

    All that said, there remains a problem with the Mississippi Flag. The truth is that there were slaves who were held and forced to work against their wills. And, the truth is that, after they were freed, and when Southerners regained control of their state governments, these former slaves were often humiliated and denied their rights as American citizens and forced to form and live in segregated communities, including schools, which in the case of other immigrants were an instrument of assimilation.

    Almost 40% of the citizens of Mississippi are African Americans, most of the descendents slaves. They almost universally are offended by the inclusion of the Battle Flag in the Mississippi State Flag. They feel no pride or loyalty when they see Mississippi Flag. The flag is not something the promotes the unity of Mississippi. It is not that Blacks (and not a few whites) just “don’t understand.” They may lack the knowledge of what you and others have written about this history of MS and its Flag. But that is not the problem. The problem is that, when they look at the Flag they see a symbol of slavery, of a war fought to preserve their ancestors’ status as slaves, and later of segregation. The reaction is visceral. It cannot be cured by history lessons or by your assurance that we really are not racists. These Black Mississippians are not going to come to a point of “enlightenment” that will result in their seeing that there is “no real problem” with the Flag.

    For this reason there are many White Mississippians, some of whom share the visceral reaction as Blacks have against the Flag. Other White Mississippians are proud of their heritage and their ancestors, but they are convinced the Flag is not functioning and cannot ever function as the symbol of the state, incorporating all her citizens. The reality is that the Flag is both a symbol of and cause of disunity. If it were a practice to place one’s hand over his heart and recite a pledge of state allegiance to Flag and State for which it stands, there are a great number of Mississippians, Black and White, who could not do so. If it were a practice to play a State anthem and to stand as the State Flag is raised, there are a great many Blacks and Whites who could not and would not stand. In other words, the Mississippi Flag no longer functions nor can it function as Flags are supposed to function – to represent the State of Mississippi and her people, to inspire pride and loyalty

    It is past time to adopt a new Flag, a Flag for all of the State and all of her citizens.

    • Keith Plunkett

      Bill, I almost always appreciate your comments even when I have disagreements with your conclusions. But feel the need to clarify a few things.

      I hold no great hope that what I write here will turn the tide. But I do aim to make sure a certain perspective on all of this is at least available should someone someday care about actually rebuilding the notion that communities can withstand differing thoughts. Mississippians of all colors and backgrounds have, in my mind, been subjected to the worst divisive tactics in history. Some of that clearly was from those who subjected others to the political positioning of the historical narrative to suit there own purposes.

      Some of it has been to promote more federal interventions that continue to keep poverty high and education low, and mistrust churned repeatedly along racial lines by the federal-state arrangement. The result is the very segregation that so many say they want to end.

      As I go out in the community I run into black Mississippians i have known all my life, and love many of them as I do any other person. But, I also find it a possibility that when some of them go home they might be making a great many assumptions about me based on nothing more than the fact that I’m white. It’s human nature to make assumptions based on impressions. But it’s unfortunate that in our current social connections those assumptions almost always begin with racial identity..

      Now, you use some very strong references to numbers. The black population of the state is actually 38-percent. But, whether 38 or 40 is of little consequence to me. However, I’d like to see any numbers you have that support your claim that “most” are descendants of slaves, and that shows they are “almost universally offended by the inclusion of the battle flag.”

      It won’t matter to me whether it’s 100-percent, though, and I’m sure you know that. My convictions aren’t based on being on the winning side or the popular side, nor is it base in division but I try to base it on inclusion.

      I don’t doubt that there are certainly some out there who have a visceral reaction in seeing the flag. After all, It’s been the subject of attack for decades. Some of that has to take a toll on peoples thinking eventually.

      But, I believe their will be some visceral reactions should it be replaced as well. And neither will these reactionaries be cured by assurances that whatever new design comes along represents “unity”. The whole issue will never be about “unity” I’m afraid to say. Because that’s not at all what’s in some peoples hearts.

      The one thing that you seem to imply in your comment that I just have to take exception to is that I somehow believe the answer to this is a matter of getting flag opponents to see that they just “don’t understand”. If I’m wrong please let me know.

      I’m not trying to enlighten anyone into thinking the state flag is suddenly a glorious object to everyone. What I’ve attempted to do is to get everyone to think a little deeper, whether they are for the flag, against the flag, or don’t care if we even have a flag.

      My previous articles on this subject were similar in that i tried to tell some backstories to the simple top line history that’s being force-fed to people. History is much deeper because unless a person has heard every story then they don’t yet have the full-perspective. This is especially the case with the Confederate Battle Flag, because it was given a place in our social and cultural experience.

      One of the first civic volunteer roles I had was in my hometown helping draft a beautification and preservation plan. Not all of the ideas made it, of course. But the Veterans Memorial on Main Street was one that did. I’ve driven by it many times over the years since and saw people standing there weeping. It’s a place where families come together to remember, and it’s a place that offers a little glue to this community to help hold it together. It makes me feel good to know I had something to do with that.

      When I was working on those projects I’d often ask residents what they wanted and what they appreciated, or thought needed to be preserved about Flora. Everybodies answer fit a specific generation, but there were many different generations that each had different ideas. What I realized is each of our own understanding of history is in a way a “coming of age” story. A personal realization story.

      That’s what I’m trying to communicate. Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes doesn’t own the exclusive right to say what the state flag or any other flag means. Nobody does. We ALL do. My view may be different from hers, and yours may be different from both of ours. But, none of us is wrong if we’re being truthful. History is more than an official timeline of events. If we care enough it should also tell us a little bit about who we are individually.

      As I’ve said before. Mississippi’s flag stands for ALL of the 120-plus years of things that have occurred since it was first flown. And no judge or lawmaker or self-appointed arbiter of good taste or historic meaning can change it. Because the truth don’t change just because It’s out of favor.

    • carlcasino

      If that’s all it took to change the minds and hearts of man lets just abandon all flags and anthems and oaths and try it the Progressives way. Man is superior and needs no other guidance except how we FEEL.? I will be willing to bet I have lived more history than either you or Keith and I am about as far from being anything, but a backsliding Christian. So this is so foreign to my belief in America and how we started , how we prospered and how we have fallen from Grace as the Founders envisioned. When symbols become false flags that mean more than the words of the Constitution we are doomed as a Nation. According to the Insurance actuaries I have lived my life and should no longer be here and but by the Grace of God I would have expired in 2009. Something tells me that I still have something that needs to be done on planet earth or I would be part of Mother Earth. My small attempt to change minds is trying to emulate what Good Works really looks like. Doing without recognition is a given. Those that know me understand that’s how I try to live. Ignoring History Is a giant step to return to ignorance and prejudice. If we cannot look at our history and realize we have made giant strides, even with all the lumps and warts, what are we to use as a standard? Man left to his own devices is a miserable creature and HISTORY PROVES it. Modern technology is a wonderful thing and one of my fears is it will be used by man to prove how corruptible we are. The moral compass that guided this nation for 241 years is dying on the vine and a computer program may not work the way many would hope for. Man has to start taking a deep look INSIDE ourselves and realize our heart may lie to us more than we care to admit. It could be that we were created with a brain to counter the heart ? Rational thought –what a unique idea..