Southern man, better keep your head

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Today is my 27th day as a Mississippi resident, even though I still need to update my driver’s license, vehicle registration, and bank accounts accordingly. My ears still haven’t fully adjusted to the gumbo-thick sound of the natives that envelops me whenever I step outside my work-from-home bubble. I suppose that will come in due time.

And yet, just when I start to think that Mississippi might not be as horrible and backward as I’ve feared, my eyes are assaulted at nearly every turn with a prominent state symbol that reminds me not to kid myself: the state flag. 

Mississippi enjoys the dubious distinction as the only state that stubbornly clings to the Old South in its flag’s aesthetic. The upper left corner is dominated by the Confederate battle flag design, with its diagonal blue cross adorned with white stars against a red background.

It flaps from the flagpoles in front of City Hall and the Tupelo Convention & Visitors Bureau, among numerous other locations downtown. At Walmart, it not only waves in the breeze atop the store, it also hangs from the rafters inside, over the “speedy checkout” area, alongside the U.S. flag. (Shopping at Target, sadly, is not an option here.) My husband and I have driven through surrounding towns that barely register as pinpricks on a road map where houses display it alongside the full-on Confederate flag.

Even worse, we have the Magnolia State’s esteemed electorate to thank for the flag’s continued existence in the 21st century. A statewide referendum was necessary in 2001 due to a legislative snafu from the previous century; lawmakers never formally adopted a state flag when they updated the state code in 1906. It is no joke that the issue went to the state Supreme Court, which teed up the ballot question after ruling in 2000 that on the basis of this technicality, Mississippi had gone 94 years without an official state flag. By a nearly 2-1 margin, voters opted to keep the current design.

To their credit, however, the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University, and the state’s other public universities have taken it down in recognition of the battle flag as a symbol of racism and hate. I can understand the PR and admissions recruitment problems the flag might pose for taxpayer-funded higher education institutions in a state where nearly 40 percent of its citizens are black – the highest African American population of any of the 50 states.

To their discredit, some state lawmakers have had nothing better to do this session than to twist their underwear into a massive bunch over this and threaten to enact one form of financial punishment or another against the universities for bagging the flag. As someone who covered a state legislature in a previous life, I am thoroughly unsurprised that certain members of this august Mississippi body have more energy to burn over micromanaging which flag gets flown on campus than considering whether the schools have adequate resources to fulfill their public missions. The issue seems to have died a welcome death for now, but it’s one of those policy disputes that tend to become “greatest hits” if you pay enough attention to the bubble of hot air under the capitol dome year after year.

The debate also has played out at the local level in my adopted hometown. In the months leading up to the opening of a new Tupelo police department headquarters in February, the city council’s two black members weren’t keen on having the state flag fly there, given that the building is in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. It was probably the last thing the police department wanted to be caught in the middle of, considering that it’s the focus of a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a black man who was killed by a white officer last summer after a routine traffic stop escalated into a foot chase. The officer was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing.

The problem is, in the course of earlier debating whether the state flag should fly on ANY municipal property, the council voted 5-2 along racial lines to require it to be flown in front of any city building with multiple flagpoles; for a lone flagpole, however, only the U.S. flag will do. In a move that calls to mind the hoariest of government clichés — “kicking the can down the road” — the council ultimately decided that for the next year, at least, the department could get away with substituting the state flag with an altogether different one commemorating Mississippi’s bicentennial on one of the department’s three flagpoles.

In my lifetime, it has been disconcerting enough to discover that in Pennsylvania, north of the Mason-Dixon line, the actual Confederate flag is embraced by some individuals, particularly in the state’s vast rural midsection, which Democratic political strategist James Carville is famously said to have described as being “Alabama without black people.” And you don’t have to go too far back in media coverage of the issue to know that even some kids there continue to stir the pot by sporting this symbol on their clothing.

But as long as Mississippi doesn’t ever require motorists to decorate their cars with tacky window flag versions of its terrible state flag, I suppose I’ll find a way to cope.

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