Saturday, March 17, 2018

A neo-Confederate moment in 2001

I came across this letter I wrote as a letter-to-the-editor in 2001, almost exactly 17 years ago, 04/24/2001. It was just after a now largely forgotten political moment in Mississippi, a special election whose only topic was whether Mississippi should keep its current state flag that features the Confederate battle flag, a symbol of treason and opposition to basic rights for African-Americans, in favor of a proposed alternative design that was, admittedly, bland and forgettable. The Confederate battle flag design won by a strong majority. The vote was heavily polarized along racial lines, as is often the case in Mississippi. The neo-Confederate Sons of Confederate Veterans group was the most visible proponent of keeping the Confederate version of the flag. As I allude in the letter to a slogan that the SCV used in the election that counts as a "thoughts and prayers" approach to white racism. Which at that time rightwing groups felt it necessary to pretend they did not condone.

Mississippi still has the same official flag today:

And there has recently been some active discussion in the state legislature about changing it.

This was the letter I did in 2001
The Mississippi flag vote was a week ago today. With today's news cycles, that's enotgh to qualify it as part of the state's "heritage" now. Though I'm not quite sure it qualfies for the "judgment of history" just yet. Actually, I'm trying to forget about it.

But walking to my office this morning, I saw Mississippi staring at me again right on the front page of the "Los Angeles Times." The headline announced that the state would be pumping $500 million into predominantly black colleges. Three weeks ago, most people would have probably thought, "Oh, things are really different now in Mississippi than they used to be."

Then you read the secondary headline and see that it was in response to a court decision in a lawsuit. Now that Mississippi has branded itself (in the ranching as well as the marketing sense) with the Confederate flag, most people probably think, "Of course. Mississippi would never do something like that without being forced to." Unfair? Prejudiced? Maybe. But Mississippi's self-marketing pretty much insures responses like that.

This whole thing reminds me of one of Karl Marx's sayings that's still considered respectable, "History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."

The "first time" in this case would have been the segregation days, where Mississippians took resistance to the Constitution and the democratic standards of the country to an extreme in some ways beyond what even other Deep South states were willing to embrace.

Last week's flag vote was the farce. Mississippi succeeded in recreating the thrill of showing that it won't kowtow to the standards of the country, even to those of other Southern states. Someone remind me, just what is the thrill of that?

But 2001 just ain't 1961. The Confederate state flag's defenders pointed to the big Nissan factory being built there as evidence that things were fine. Mississippi still has the biggest number of African-American elected officials of any state - numerically, not just in proportion to the population. Japanese investors and black Mississippi elected officials were just not factors 40 years ago.

The NAACP will probably feel obliged to go through the motions of a boycott, because of their public stance in the South Carolina controversy. Ironically, the attitude of Mississippi's black elected officials will inevitably be a big consideration for them in making that decision.

But since the Sons of Confederate Veterans led the charge for the Confederate state flag saying that "racial reconciliation requires changing hearts, not the flag," I think it would be quite effective if the folks from the SCV were to meet with NAACP officials. They could explain to them all the good things they plan to do to improve race relations in the state, and see if they can avoid a boycott.

If they don't try something like that, people might suspect the Sons of Confederate Veterans of being just a bunch of gasbags.

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