The Mississippi state flag is novel for two reasons. Most are aware of the first: it is the only state flag that still includes the Confederate battle emblem. But the second reason hasn’t gotten much attention: Mississippi’s is the only state flag that does not have any insignia specific to the state itself.*
If you browse the other 49 state flags, you’ll notice that each one includes some symbol, text, image, or other feature that relates specifically to the state it represents. Washington’s flag showcases a portrait of George Washington. Colorado’s flag has a big C in the middle. Several flags are simply state seals on a color background. Alaska’s flag features the Big Dipper. Louisiana’s flag displays a regurgitating pelican, the state bird.
As for Mississippi’s flag? The red, white, and blue stripes were chosen because they are the national colors. The blue cross in the canton was chosen to honor a rebellion that Mississippi undertook with 10 other breakaway states. That Confederate emblem is offensive and racist and has no place in civil society – and in no respect is it unique to Mississippi except, perhaps, for the unparalleled resistance to progress that its presence reveals.
When I hear my fellow Mississippians invoke heritage and state pride as part of their keep-the-flag arguments, I honestly don’t know what they’re talking about. Our flag only reminds me of Mississippi’s (and the rest of the South’s) darkest days. The Confederate iconography is inextricably connected to slavery, the Civil War, white backlash to Reconstruction, lynching, Jim Crow, and white supremacist groups such as the KKK. Whatever redeeming qualities folks think the design invokes are easily negated by its association with violence, racism, and oppression.
But here’s the real issue when it comes to the flag: a bunch of Mississippians feel as if they are about to lose something. The nature of that something is beside the point. Behavioral psychologists have shown that humans are loss averse – meaning we strongly prefer avoiding losses (even perceived losses) to acquiring gains of the same amount. Exactly what these flag supporters are afraid of losing probably varies, but consider for a moment what proponents of a new flag – namely, African Americans – have lost in Mississippi over the years. They’ve lost their names. They’ve lost their freedom. They’ve lost their civil rights. They’ve lost their lives. And, all the while, the Stars and Bars have flapped above their heads – a quiet reminder of who’s in charge.
The First Amendment gives Lost Causers and cowards in white hoods the right to wave the Confederate battle flag, but to continue to display it in any official capacity is an insult to the sacrifices and hard-earned progress made by generations of Mississippians who believe we are better than our past. As we reckon with that past and begin to look toward the future, now is the time to promote an open dialogue about the unique attributes of our state. In that dialogue, we should push beyond vague appeals to “heritage” and begin to articulate the aspects of our common fabric that are worth celebrating.
Once we do that, I believe Mississippians of all stripes will favor a flag that stitches together the people and character of the state – a symbol that showcases the distinctiveness of our best attributes rather than the banality of our worst ones.
*If every rule has an exception, this one’s would be Alabama, whose flag is an homage to the Confederate cross.