Historian James C. Cobb called Mississippi The Most Southern Place on Earth, and its name alone evokes imagery and sentiments that form the basis of folklore about the South. In this essay, Mississippi writer Randall Weeks dives into what may be the most Southern of Southern mythic symbols: the Confederate flag, whose use, meaning, and relevance has evolved over time.
Made in Mississippi: The Idolatry of Symbols of the Confederacy
by Randall S. Weeks
“Homo sapiens are the species that invents symbols in which to invest passion and authority, then forgets that symbols are inventions.” – Joyce Carol Oates
Symbols matter. Whether it is Judaism’s Star of David, the Nike swoosh, the Star and Crescent of Islam, an apple with a missing bite, or the cross of Christianity, symbols matter. They stand for something. They send a message. They call for allegiance or serve as a warning. Perhaps now more than ever, symbols help drive our culture, sometimes simultaneously evoking love and hate. But symbols only take on the meaning we impute to them.
For decades, many Mississippians have actively and openly argued, marched, demonstrated, and fought over the symbols of the state flag and Confederate statues. Over the past twenty years, the protests have grown larger and louder. As is often the case, these symbols have been romanticized and exalted to the level of holiness by their adherents. When a symbol is imbued with such grandeur, it can easily take on the qualities of an idol. Those who cling to it are often unable and/or unwilling to consider anything beyond their own narrative about it―stories handed down through the generations that may or may not have facts at their core. Now that is changing, but not without a fight. For, you see, Mississippi isn’t much on change. Mississippians tend to hold fast to tradition, sometimes at our own peril.
Mississippi has long been a hotbed for racism. My home state came by that reputation honestly through racist laws, some which are still on the books, and white-on-black violence like the untold number of lynchings, the torture and murder of Emmett Till, and the assassination of Medgar Evers. Separate water fountains, separate restrooms, and separate school systems served to enforce the apartheid of the South. I recall when Evers led the first attempt to integrate Jackson, Mississippi’s First Baptist Church in 1963. Evers and his supporters were stopped by white male church members who stood in the doorways of the building and kept them out. Even as a child that bothered me. Fifteen years later, a “white” Baptist church in Canton, Mississippi voted to allow no blacks in the sanctuary except to clean it, all to keep a white bride’s black maid from attending her wedding. Deacons made statements like, “I go to work with ‘em every day, my children go to school with ‘em every day, but I’ll be doggone if I’m gonna go to church with ’em.” I know this because I was there. This pervasive, underlying, and oft denied bigotry was and continues to be at the very heart and soul of the affection for and commitment to Confederate symbols.
The most remembered and revered Confederate flag bears the cross of St. Andrew (the “Southern Cross”) and was never an official battle flag of the Confederacy. However, it gained popularity after the Civil War and became the most prominent banner associated with the Confederacy. Some Southern states included it in one form or another in their own official flags, Mississippi among them. When Georgia adopted a new flag in 2003, Mississippi became the sole remaining state with the Confederate battle flag as a part of its official flag.
In 2001, Mississippi’s Democratic Governor Ronnie Musgrove appointed a commission to study changing the state flag and removing the Confederate battle flag from the state’s standard. A referendum to do just that made it to the ballot box that year, but was defeated, 64% to 36%. Still, efforts to change the state flag continued.
In 2014, artist Laurin Stennis designed what came to be known as the Stennis Flag (later changed to the “Hospitality Flag”). As businesses, municipalities, and state-supported universities (including HBCUs), ceased flying the state flag, the Stennis Flag was gaining traction. It was being flown from private businesses and homes, and it even garnered enough grassroots support to become one of Mississippi’s many specialty vehicle tags. While the Stennis Flag was not adopted as Mississippi’s new state flag (possibly because of the racial voting record of Laurin’s late grandfather United States Senator John C. Stennis), Laurin Stennis’ efforts likely did more to achieve the eventual flag change that those of any other individual of the day. The final push came when the holy trinity of the South―NASCAR, the SEC, and the Mississippi Baptist Convention―all called for the removal of the old flag. The changing of the state flag that culminated in 2020 (made official by the Mississippi Legislature in January 2021) was a divisive issue that came with many protests and cries for fidelity to history and tradition.
It was in these same years that strong calls to remove Confederate monuments from county courthouses and state-owned properties arose. Those efforts, too, were met with severe resistance by those who argued that reformers were trying to rewrite history and that the monuments were to honor the dead, not the divisiveness of the Civil War. Claims that Mississippi didn’t join the Confederacy over slavery resurfaced but were difficult to prove since in its first two paragraphs, Mississippi’s articles of secession explicitly identified slavery as its central tenet:
“In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.”
As of June 2020, at least five Mississippi counties had voted to remove Confederate statues from the grounds of public properties such as courthouse lawns: Bolivar, Harrison, Leflore, Lowndes, and Washington. In my own town of Lafayette County’s Oxford, Mississippi, two Confederate monuments stood on public grounds: one near the popular Grove on the campus of the University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”) and the other on Oxford’s famed Square, in front of the Lafayette County Courthouse. After many protests and years of pressure, the statue on the U of M campus was moved in 2020 from its place of prominence to a more remote location on campus, a cemetery where lie the remains of hundreds of Confederate soldiers.
Following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, regular protests over the second statue were held on the Square and continue to this day, but protesters have yet to move the all white male Lafayette County Board of Supervisors to vote to take down the monument. (Interestingly, several Oxfordians have told me that the statue was cast from the same mold that was used to cast other such monuments, both Confederate and Union. So the soldier statues on opposing sides have the same faces. That calls to mind the fact that in the Civil War it was not uncommon for a battle to pit brother against brother.)
The vast majority of supporters of Mississippi’s old flag and of the Confederate monuments are white. Many have relatives who fought in the Civil War. But what of black Mississippians who make up over a third of the state’s population? What does it take for their voices to be heard?
It is true that a handful of African-American Mississippians have no interest in the flag and statue debate. But most hold the Confederate flag and monuments to be ongoing symbols of white supremacy that need to be viewed as museum pieces and relocated to places consistent with such displays.
As stated earlier, these Confederate symbols have become idols, and idolatry closes the eyes and ears of the worshipper. These idols do not represent a noble cause. They represent the reprehensible belief that one person is better than another, that one person has the moral right to own another person, and that one group of people can legitimately put their collective knee on the necks of others and literally choke the life out of them and be justified in doing so, all because of the color of their skin.
Mississippi always ranks high in surveys about religiosity in America. Overwhelmingly Christian, it would seem that many of Mississippi’s evangelicals have put aside the central principles of their love-based faith in order to bend that same knee to Confederate symbols. Those who hold the Confederate flag and monuments sacrosanct are placing more importance in fabric and stone than they are in reconciliation and harmony. They must let the scales fall from their eyes to see the truth. It is long past time that Confederate symbols be ascribed their true meaning: relics of a sordid past that continue to encourage, glorify, and romanticize white supremacy to this very day.
While it is often reinterpreted, history cannot be changed, and it should not be forgotten. But in a culture that is purported to be based on justice and equality, a history of harm, a history of hate, a history of oppression, a history of violence and its symbols must be removed from places of glory and put in their proper context for the good of the people and the healthy growth of the nation. Things made by human hands will come and go. The good and the bad that comes from how we treat each other will be handed down through the generations. May we put aside those things that divide us and create a legacy of mutual respect, equality, and unity for ourselves and for the future of all humankind.
1. Mississippi Civil Rights Project, accessed February 2, 2021, https://mscivilrightsproject.org/hinds/place-hinds/first-baptist-church-of-jackson/.
2. Dahleen Glanton, Given Choice, Mississippi Wraps Itself in Rebel Stars, Chicago Tribune, Apr. 18, 2001.
3. A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union, Mississippi History Now, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, accessed February 2, 2021, http://www.mshistorynow.mdah.ms.gov/articles/175/index.php?s=extra&id=177.