Lt. Governor Delbert Hosemann and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn have asked me to make a statement on the issue of the Mississippi flag. The leaders of our State government and legislature are discussing and debating this matter right now in Jackson. It seems that a consensus is emerging for change. As a Presbyterian, my Confession warns against “intermeddling in civil affairs” but encourages me that when I am asked to offer advice by the civil magistrate that I should be ready to give a Christian and biblical answer. Here is what I said.
I have lived and worked in Mississippi for over half my life, but I was born into a family of eight generations of South Carolinians. My forbearers fought for the Confederacy and their descendants have been re-fighting “The War” ever since. I grew up reading Lee’s Lieutenants, a framed print of Everett Julio’s “The Last Meeting of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville” hung on my Father’s office wall, the women of my lineage were United Daughters of the Confederacy, and my father was the Chaplain for the 16th Regiment, SC, Volunteers Camp 36, Sons of Confederate Veterans. I was reared on “The Lost Cause,” served as a U.S. Senate Page under J. Strom Thurmond (R-SC), and I do not despise my ancestors.
But I do love my neighbors. All of them. And I want all of us, together, to be able to be proud of our State Flag.
I fully understand and appreciate that many good people of this great State view the Confederate Flag (the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia) merely as a symbol of heritage, and not as a sign of support for slavery and white supremacy. For many it represents a rejection of “political correctness,” reverence for ancestors, respect for the past, acknowledgment of our state’s history, and other perfectly understandable and laudable things.
However, as a historian, fully sympathetic to my people and our heritage, I have to say that the symbols of the Confederacy, represent not simply “the preservation of a way of life” and “States Rights,” but “States’ Rights to perpetuate chattel slavery, by denying Black people social and political equality” (these things are explicitly in Mississippi’s Ordinance of Secession), and then, to make things worse, especially after most of the men who actually fought the War died, these symbols have been persistently and widely used to send a message of oppression, terror, inferiority and exclusion to the Black people of the South in general, and our State in particular.
This is sadly true of our current State Flag, the so-called “1894 Flag” which incorporates the Confederate Battle flag. It was adopted in a time when efforts were being made to exclude Black people from voting in our state and when occurrences of lynching were frequent. And it became symbolic of our State’s opposition to equal civil rights for our fellow Black citizens. So, here is the situation. The Mississippi Code says that the “The pledge of allegiance to the Mississippi flag shall be taught in the public schools of this state” and asks our students to say: “I salute the flag of Mississippi and the sovereign state for which it stands with pride in her history and achievements and with confidence in her future under the guidance of Almighty God.”
We are asking almost half the population of our State to salute a symbol that has (undeniably) been used for well over a century to indicate their own Country’s and State’s rejection of their humanity and equality. That is utterly unconscionable.
What is the solution? The current State flag must come down and be replaced by a symbol that unites us all as friends and neighbors, fellow citizens who genuinely care about one another’s well-being.
As a Christian, this is all about two simple, basic, biblical things: (1) Loving my neighbor, and (2) acknowledging that every person is created in God’s image. If we do that as Christian citizens, we will want our public symbols to emphatically acknowledge the humanity and equality of all our fellow citizens, and we will want those symbols to inspire them to feel a part of and love our State, not fear and distrust it.
For some of our citizens that will mean parting with symbols they love, but that too is part of the Christian life. Jesus taught us to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him. Interestingly, this is the very subject that Douglas Southall Freeman addresses at the end of his Pulitzer prize-winning four volume biography of Robert E. Lee. Freeman pauses to reflect upon the character of General Lee and the principles which motivated him in life and says: “Had his life been epitomized in one sentence of the Book he read so often, it would have been in the words, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.’ And if one, only one, of all the myriad incidents of his stirring life had to be selected to typify his message, as a man, to the young Americans [who mourned his passing], who would hesitate in selecting that incident? It occurred in Northern Virginia, probably on his last visit there. A young mother brought her baby to him to be blessed. He took the infant in his arms and looked at it and then at her and slowly said, ‘Teach him he must deny himself.’ That is all.”
Honored members of our legislature and State government. It is time to call the people of this State to deny themselves and love their neighbors. They will do it, if we lead.
Vote to take down the flag, and replace it with a symbol that unites us all. And Mississippi can show the world what it looks like to love our neighbors and deny ourselves.