On Election Day, Mississippi became the final state to dissociate from the Confederate emblem, an enduring symbol of slavery in the southern United States. More than 70 percent of Mississippi voters approved a new state flag, which features a magnolia flower surrounded by stars.
“I am not shocked, but I am surprised,” says Patricia Davis, an associate professor at Northeastern who studies public memory, identity, race, gender, and representation. “There’s a pretty long history of efforts to get rid of that Confederate symbol in the Mississippi flag that have been unsuccessful over time, including several years ago, when the people voted to keep the flag intact.”
Other Southern states have severed ties in recent years with the Civil War emblem. But the battles over Confederate symbols have remained contentious: A 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, was incited by white supremacists who were protesting plans to take down a Confederate statue.
The most recent Mississippi flag was created in 1894, when the state was promoting Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise Black citizens. The Civil War and its aftermath yielded multiple versions of the Confederate emblem across the South, says Davis.
“That one [in Mississippi] is actually known as the Confederate battle flag,” Davis says. “It has been taken up by racists—the KKK and other anti-Black and white-supremacist groups—as a means of suggesting to African Americans that you are not real citizens, you are not real human beings. Most people have some idea of the violent history behind these groups, and how they have operated to keep the African American community terrorized through violence.”
Some people defend the Confederate flag, claiming it to be central to Southern identity, irrespective of slavery; the emblem remains a fixture in all kinds of private settings throughout the region.
But backers of the new flag have said that support for the Confederate emblem and culture have mired Mississippi in the past.
“The argument over the 1894 flag has become as divisive as the flag itself, and it’s time to end it,” said Tate Reeves, Mississippi’s Republican governor, when he signed legislation in June to remove the emblem from the state flag. That decision followed national and international protests over the police killings of George Floyd and other Black people.
Davis notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has been killing Black people in Mississippi at a rate higher than their proportion to the state population.
“If people situate that particular health disparity within a larger field of vision that encompasses historic and contemporary racism, you could say that now we’re starting to see some real material impacts of racism,” Davis says. “And maybe we need to do something about the more symbolic representations of it.”
Davis believes that the official eradication of the Confederate emblem may provide a boost for disenfranchised people in Mississippi.
“I’m not convinced that folks in Mississippi know exactly how much power they have, politically, in terms of the numbers,” Davis says. “This could serve as a source of empowerment for African Americans there.”