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.