I hadn't been a resident very long the first time I ever stood on the steps of the Mississippi state capitol. As a Jackson State University student, I was asked to speak at a rally where we were pushing for the state to reopen closed murder cases from the civil rights era.
I took the microphone and read off the names of people who were connected to the deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, yet still walking free in Philadelphia, Miss. I said something about it being time for justice, and then I remembered a conversation my then-70-year-old father and I had before I came to Mississippi.
I shared this story with the people gathered: "When I told my father I received a scholarship to JSU, he asked me, 'Why would you choose to go there after I spent my life trying to get away from the south and that way of thinking?' "Of course, I told my father how the south is different and things have changed. Yet, as I stand here today and look up and see our state flag, I realize I'm speaking under a symbol of racism and oppression. So I guess he was right. Things haven't changed too much."
Mississippi recently broke ground on a new civil rights museum. It is beyond past due. At the ground-breaking, JFP photographer Trip Burns captured a great photo of Myrlie Evers-Williams speaking under our state flag. That image brought back that memory for me.
I had to wonder if Ms. Evers-Williams was thinking something similar. I know people want to believe the flag doesn't matter. But it does. A government chooses its symbols to represent its values. What does the Confederate emblem say about ours?
Recently on social media I've read a lot of conversation about the state flag and, because of Halloween, white people wearing blackface. A theme kept emerging—that good white people with good hearts and good intentions shouldn't have to give up their flag or wearing a costume they like because some people (sensitive minorities) are offended.
I want those "good white people" to understand how that sounds to most of the people of color in your lives. That you don't care about others enough to listen to our pain or give up these painful symbols that hurt us, so please kiss off.
Here's the thing: Your good feelings toward the people of color in your lives aren't enough. If you say you are for equality and against racism, then you should be against racist symbols and symbolism. No apologies, no excuses. This isn't about who is a bad person and who isn't. This is about challenging racism.
When it comes to that battle, either you walk your talk, or you don't.