Flagging Racial Progress

As the world knows by now, on April 17 my home state of Mississippi took a giant step into the 19th century. That was the day when, by a margin of 30 percent, our voters rejected a new state flag design that omitted the old Confederate battle emblem widely known as the "Stars and Bars."

Since that time the national newspapers have opined sagely upon the backwardness and lingering racism of my fellow white Mississippians. And we deserved it all. The vast majority of whites who voted in the April 17 referendum endorsed the old Confederate banner. And, in my neck of the woods, the most commonly heard reason given for that vote was the vague conviction that "they" have been "given" too much, and it was time to draw a line of white self-defense. It was a narrow, mean-spirited, and frankly un-Christian impulse. It was the kind of thing you might have heard in California a few years back when they passed that referendum against affirmative action.

But Mississippi is not California. Our history of racial oppression and violence has made us the Germans of North America—we have to be watched. Some of us understand that, but a lot of white Mississippians don’t. They don’t understand because they are as ignorant of history as any other Americans and, most important, because their churches have failed to provide moral leadership on the question of race. Mississippi’s Catholic, Methodist, and Episcopal leaders strongly supported replacing the old flag, as did many in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). But Southern Baptist leaders, who represent the vast majority of white Christians down here, were stunningly silent, at best. So their people were left ignorant and leaderless, and prey to their own worst instincts.

Meanwhile, the campaign for the new flag did little to educate white Mississippians about the true meaning of their symbols. Support for the new flag came mostly from the Mississippi Economic Council (a statewide chamber of commerce) and other business interests. The big boys down here want to play ball in the global economy, and they don’t want to rub anyone the wrong way. A persistent rumor around the state this spring held that the flag change was a secret condition of a just-announced deal to bring a Nissan assembly plant to Mississippi. An appeal for Mississippians to change in order to make themselves more palatable to outside corporations will always fail.

The campaign also failed to excite the interest of the state’s black voters. On referendum day, turnout in the majority-black counties along the Mississippi River was only half what it was in the 1999 gubernatorial race.

Despite the results of April 17, Mississippi is not what it once was. A lot has changed, and mostly for the better. But we’ll have to wait awhile to see that change reflected in our most prominent symbol.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

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