Cedric Willis has been a good friend of the Jackson Free Press ever since we told the full story about him being convicted of two murders he didn't commit and sent to Parchman for 12 years, even though evidence could have exonerated him. This summer, when he paid his annual visit to wow summer interns who had studied the feature story Brian Johnson wrote about him for us, he brought up the Mississippi flag.
Why, he asked the mostly African American group of young people, does that piece of cloth matter to us? We have so many more pertinent and current issues to worry about.
You can see the point coming from a young man who was robbed of 12 years of his life, and much of his son's childhood, because of a corrupt criminal-justice system biased against young, black men like himself.
Why should a piece of cloth matter?
I get his point, but I ultimately disagree with him. The 1894 Mississippi flag, with the Confederate battle emblem as its canton, represents much more than an antiquated piece of cloth. It stands for the continuing ignorance about how the systemic racism that Confederate states seceded to preserve (and managed to for another century after forcing an end to Reconstruction) has created the problems of today.
The results of this legacy include that broken criminal-justice system that sent Cedric and so many other black men to prison, while refusing to prosecute so many murderous whites who tortured and killed black people here in the state that had the most lynchings.
But he is so right that simply changing what's on that piece of cloth will not change anything, or reverse our state's (or nation's) tradition of structural racism, unless people force themselves to look squarely at what the flag really represents, and stop all the silly dancing trying to make the Confederacy and the Civil War about anything but some states' rights to get the federal government to support slavery, require it to be legal in new states and get non-slave states to send the South's runaway slaves back to them.
We know this without a doubt because of the words of the Confederates themselves. Jefferson Davis himself even made it clear more than a decade after the Civil War ended (and Union soldiers helped his slaves escape) that he believed African slaves were "inferior." It's simply not a serious debate any longer; maybe it was before everybody had the Internet and can look up southern states' very racist Declarations of Secession, but no more.
This time around, the only way that the flag will change, and frankly the only reason that it should, is for Mississippians to learn exactly what it always stood for: the subjugation of black people. We shouldn't change it because it's bad for business, or because some rich dude or preacher says we should, or any other reason than that it has always represented systematic oppression. That was true in 1861, and it was true in 1961, and it was true when the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross under it on Stone Mountain in the early 20th century.
And it's not even about it being "stolen" by hateful people (that many of us descend from) a hundred years after the Civil War. Frankly, it amazes me that many white southerners are more willing to tar relatives they knew who opposed segregation 50 years than are the ancestors they could have never known 150 years ago. Really, it's OK—no, imperative—to face that many of us descend from people who fought for a very bad institution. Descending from them isn't where the shame lives; it lives in not being willing to stop celebrating that misguided fight, even today.
But I'll say it again: It's not just about a piece of cloth. It's about connecting the dots from then until now. If you read the speeches and letters from the time, you will find much of the same dehumanization and justification for mistreating black people then as slaves as we see now in all the rhetoric that blames black people for the conditions in neighborhoods that white people in power treated as ghettos and then neglected for decades since the Civil War.
We see the remnants of the old thinking in the blatant refusal of our governor and many white state legislators to obey Mississippi law and provide an adequate level of education funding that can help reverse problems in majority-black public schools. They simply don't want to spend money on schools for "those people," and they pander to the kinds of people who agree with such a backward approach. (And these are people who value money over just about everything, except when it comes to public schools needing enough of it to do the basics.) It's disgusting.
The understanding for these mindsets awaits in understanding how we got here—how slavery, the turnback of Reconstruction, the Klan, the nasty militias (like the Red Shirts here in Mississippi), the Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, redlined loan and housing applications well into the 1980s, the lies spread by racists about black people being inferior and more violent, and the refusal to fund public schools once they had to integrate, and then blaming all of the results on the victims of this systemic and structural racism have created a mess that we all have to undo.
The flag, and whether or not we decide that it still represents who we are today, is merely an indicator of our identity as a people. Have we really changed enough to face what being the only state in the nation to keep it flying says about us? Can we face the white people who so angrily demand in the same breath that it's only a piece of cloth (so why not leave it?) while vowing to stockpile fertilizer to fight back if we try to change it?
The question really becomes: Can we find the will to be different in today's Mississippi? This can't be a riddle that is divided along partisan lines. I mean, how in the world can good race relations be only something that Democrats care about—especially in a nation that Republicans saved from the peculiar institution of slavery 150 years ago?
Folks, we must, must bring this flag down. Mississippi will never get off the bottom of the American barrel or, more importantly, become strong from the inside-out if we keep honoring the fight to make money by owning and mistreating other human beings. It cannot happen. It will not happen until we face and understand this curse.
We can do this, neighbors. We must.
Read more stories about the rebel flag, slavery and the Confederacy at jfp.ms/slavery.