October 26, 2020

As a Flag Comes Down, Looking for a ‘New Mississippi’

JACKSON, Miss. — The activists were infants when two-thirds of Mississippians voted in 2001 to keep the state flag embedded with the battle emblem of the Confederacy. They grew up pledging allegiance to it in school, where they also learned about a history of segregation and oppression associated with the banner.

The activists, a band of Black Lives Matter organizers, marched last month through the streets of Jackson, the flag’s removal among their demands. But despite the fury, it seemed a false hope in a state that had proudly flown it for 126 years.

“The state flag, we thought, was a constant,” Calvert White, 20, said on a recent afternoon.

Yet hours later, state troopers folded the flag at the Capitol for the last time.

In a matter of days, something that had seemed impossible was suddenly inevitable, a turnabout that was powered by a coalition of seemingly unlikely allies, including business-minded conservatives, Baptist ministers and the Black Lives Matter activists.

They were bound by a mutual affection for a state not always understood by the rest of the world and a recognition that the flag presented complications as Mississippi confronts a daunting roster of struggles.

They also agree that their triumph has created a sense of momentum. But that solidarity is being tested as they wrestle with what to do with it.

ImageCalvert White
Credit…Timothy Ivy for The New York Times

‘It’s a catalyst for change, because we have had this painful discussion about the flag. There are so many opportunities that we can take to get on the right footing and get that equity.’

— Calvert White, a native of Clinton, Miss., and Alcorn State University student

“Mississippi right now has a great opportunity to be a story of redemption, a story of our past but also a story of the hope for our future and how white and Black Mississippians worked together to get this done,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican strategist and a nephew of the former governor Haley Barbour.

The fight over the flag reflected what many viewed as a desire in Mississippi to move beyond the state’s past. The Mississippi Baptist Convention declared removing the flag “a matter of biblical morality” and veteran white lawmakers spoke in personal terms about their desire for unity.

“I really thought as a person of faith, God is entering people’s hearts,” said Susan M. Glisson, the former executive director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. “That’s the only way I could account for the change on so many levels.”

The flag had weathered decades of protests and the toppling of Confederate relics across the South, and many lawmakers and political observers, just weeks ago, were certain that any effort mounted this year would fail yet again.

The legacy of the Confederacy remains very much a part of present-day Mississippi. Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican who took office this year, declared April as Confederate heritage month. Polls showed that nearly half of the state did not want to change the flag, which many white Mississippians regard as a tribute to their Southern heritage and the blood shed by their ancestors in the Civil War.

It is a sentiment that President Trump has seized upon during his re-election effort, tapping into a deep well of fear and resentment as he cast himself as a guardian of that legacy.

But as protests erupted across the country in recent weeks after George Floyd died in the custody of the Minneapolis police, the drive to change the flag swiftly gained new vigor as Confederate monuments were vandalized and removed throughout the region.

Then, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Southeastern Conference announced that they were toughening their opposition to the battle emblem and would more aggressively penalize any state that sanctioned it, underscoring the economic repercussions posed by keeping the flag.

Legislation to change the flag was championed in large part by white Republican lawmakers and passed by wide margins. A new flag will be up for a statewide vote in November.

“It gives the citizens of Mississippi hope and reassurance that change can happen,” said Taylor Turnage, one of the Black Lives Matter organizers. “It’s OK to celebrate,” she cautioned, “but we can’t celebrate too long because we don’t want to relish this moment and forget a movement.”

Credit…Timothy Ivy for The New York Times

‘We’re the new Mississippi. I think that’s what we’re seeing. Do I think the fight will get easier from here? I think it will get harder.’

— Taylor Turnage, a Tougaloo College student from Byram, Miss.

But the coalition that was unified in tackling the flag has diverging ideas about how to push forward. Many argued that taking down the flag was about removing a barrier to business, and that the state needs to signal its hospitality for large corporations that would bring jobs and economic development.

Still, others believe the energy should be channeled into bolstering the social safety net, expanding Medicaid and boosting education funding.

Before the flag, there had been bipartisan agreement in overhauling the criminal justice system, addressing the lasting consequences of the tough-on-crime measures that led Mississippi to have one of the highest incarceration rates in the country.

“They may be motivated by different reasons,” said the Rev. Dr. CJ Rhodes, the pastor of Mt. Helm Baptist Church in Jackson, “but they’re all working toward the same goal. I can see that expanding to voting rights, to education, to health care.”

There is skepticism about how long that unity will last, and how much they can ultimately trust one another.

“My concern,” said Corey Wiggins, executive director of the Mississippi N.A.A.C.P., “is when you have lawmakers who consistently and constantly pass and enact legislation that is detrimental to our community who will try to rewrite the narrative around removing the flag while still passing legislation underfunding our schools and over-policing our communities.”

Mississippi faces a troubling array of woes. It is one of the poorest states, and the economy has been left teetering by the coronavirus. Many have limited access to health care, and its public school system remains one of the worst in the nation.

The decrepit condition of the state’s prisons spurred inmates to revolt earlier this year. Bridges across the state are crumbling, even collapsing, and driving through the crater-pocked streets of Jackson is not unlike traversing the surface of the moon. Rural parts of the state lack reliable broadband internet access, hobbling students who are taking classes remotely during the pandemic.

Governor Reeves had initially said the decision to change the flag ought to be made directly by voters. But he relented, pointing to the slew of challenges demanding his attention.

“I am not a man who likes to change his mind,” Mr. Reeves said as he signed the legislation. But, he added, “I concluded our state has too much adversity to survive a bitter fight of brother against brother. We must work to defeat the virus and the recession — and not be focused on trying to defeat each other.”

Defenders of the old flag have mobilized to at least derail the process to pick a new one if they cannot reinstate the Confederate battle emblem. There have been vows to continue flying it, and stores have sold out their stocks. “We haven’t lost your order,” the manager of Beauvoir’s Gift Shop in Biloxi told customers on its Facebook page. “We just can’t fill it yet.”

Credit…Timothy Ivy for The New York Times

The flag’s supporters have described the effort to change it as an assault on their history and values that goes beyond the banner. “If a group of people are powerful enough to take your flag,” the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans said in a message it shared on social media, “they can take anything from you that they want.”

But in the Legislature, most of the opposition was centered on pushing for another statewide referendum instead of having lawmakers decide. “I’m not going to walk away from a promise I made to the people,” said Tyler McCaughn, a Republican state senator, who voted against the legislation.

Bradley Lum, the chief executive of the Mississippi Prison Industries Corporation, described himself as someone who “kind of checks all the boxes” for supporting the flag: a white conservative who can trace his family’s roots in Mississippi to 1810.

But he was among the white Mississippians who have come to understand the pain tied to the history the flag symbolizes.

“The perception of a place generally becomes its reality,” Mr. Lum said. “For us, I think the first step in bringing down that symbol, people get to see Mississippi for what it truly is instead of what they perceive it to be.”

Credit…Timothy Ivy for The New York Times

‘Anybody would say the likelihood of the flag coming down during this session was very minimal. All the stars aligned in more ways than one.’

— Bradley Lum, a businessman who believes that a new flag can help lift Mississippi’s economic prospects

It is a mistake, some contend, to see Mississippi only through the prism of its racial history, and it is a flaw at the heart of the old flag. Changing the perception of the state was not just about wooing a company to build a factory here; it was also a matter of accuracy. For some, a flag dominated by the Confederate symbol failed to convey the spirit of their home state.

“It’s always going to be family,” Timothy Young, one of the Black Lives Matter activists, said of Mississippi. “It’s always going to be good food. It’s always going to be soulful connection. It’s always going to be some good, wholesome people here.”

“We limit our image of Mississippi because we’re so used to it,” Mr. Young, 21, added. “It’s a new Mississippi for the rest of the world. It’s the same Mississippi we’ve always been. We just want to introduce them to the Mississippi that we love, because if we didn’t love it, we wouldn’t fight for it.”

Credit…Timothy Ivy for The New York Times

‘It feels wrong to not feel comfortable in your home.’

— Timothy Young, a native of Jackson and recent graduate of Jackson State University

Still, the activists said, being young and Black in Mississippi, they had experienced the undercurrents of racism that endure. Mr. White, who played high school football, recalled players from opposing teams antagonizing him with racial slurs.

Ms. Turnage, 23, acknowledged the suspicions that had left her reluctant to celebrate a victory until she saw Mr. Reeves sign the legislation. “It’s just like, we’re Mississippi,” she said. “Mississippi has always been Mississippi. It will always be Mississippi.”

But that did not trouble her so much anymore, she said. Being Mississippi has now taken on a different definition.

Richard Fausset contributed reporting from Atlanta.