New flag. Mississippi is getting a new flag. The House and the Senate passed a bill to bring down the current flag and appoint a commission to design a new one that the voters will vote on in November. As I write this on Sunday evening, the governor still has to sign it but the current flag is coming down before the legislature adjourns. In all the years that I have hoped for this to happen—I never expected to feel as conflicted as I do. Not over ditching the old flag, I’m crystal clear on how I feel about that. I want to be there. I want to watch the one at the Capitol come down and be carried away.
Maybe the conflict comes from being so proud of my state for getting this one right and then stepping back and thinking, ‘It’s completely insane that it took this long.’ One social media tagline promoting changing the flag was, ‘It’s Time,’ even though we all know it was long past time. I’m sure people outside of Mississippi cannot fathom how any state could still have confederate imagery on their flag in 2020—or maybe they think so poorly of us for this fact that they aren’t surprised at all. Either way, that won’t be a defining fact about Mississippi any longer—and for that I am so grateful.
Maybe it’s the fact that this is something so many people have wanted for so long, but with no success and, while it was obviously nowhere near this simple, it does feel like there were a couple of weeks of talk, then boom—flag gone. Over the years there have been flag bills written session after session but they would never make it out of committee. There have been petitions and lawsuits. Some news story or article or interview would inject new energy into the conversation—but no action would be taken and it would ebb again.
There’s always strength in numbers and comfort in the crowd, but so many people stepped out on the ledge alone for this kind of change. So many, in fact, that it makes me nervous to list just a few of the Mississippians who have invested untold amounts of blood, sweat, and tears to get us to this day, but it should be said that Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten up for this kind of change. Medgar Evers and Rev. George Wesley Lee died for this kind of change. Ellie Dahmer lost her home and her husband for working for this kind of change. Governor William Winter and Senator David Jordan traveled the state in 2000, receiving threats and insults while giving voice to the need for this very change. Laurin Stennis designed a new flag that started a grassroots movement that can be seen on porches and businesses and car tags statewide that have raised over $40,000 for the Two Museums because she believed in this kind of change. For longer than this, but especially the past month, Speaker Gunn, Lt. Governor Hosemann, and who knows how many legislators and staff begged, borrowed, and cajoled votes out of their fellow lawmakers. So many people have been beating this drum for so long, and then it turns out—all it took to finally make it happen was a reckoning, some athletes, and a bunch of preachers. Go figure.
If you aren’t familiar with how we, Mississippi, got to cheers in the state Senate chamber on a hazy Sunday afternoon—Google it up, there have been miles of column inches explaining things like ‘adjourn subject to call’ and suspension resolutions. But the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks in short succession brought our country’s problems with racism and white supremacy into the viewfinder of more of white America than anything else has in recent times. Over 3,000 people flooded the streets of Jackson, Mississippi chanting, ‘No justice, no peace!’ and, ‘Black Lives Matter!’ The march was incredibly well-organized and accomplished in something like five days by several Black college students who ended the march by calling for changing the flag.
NASCAR came for the flag next, then the SEC and their players and coaches, businesses both large and small, and finally the Southern Baptists and the Presbyterians. We can debate what brought them all around all day, but these organizations came out strong for changing the flag once they decided to come out.
I cried in my driveway when the biggest hurdles to passing the legislation were cleared on Saturday afternoon—it was the only place to hide from my children to watch the live feed from the Senate floor. I had explained what was going on, trying for a DIY civics lesson, but they had ceased to care when I was still watching a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’ on their iPad and wouldn’t give it back after a couple of hours.
Earlier in the day, I went down to the Capitol with my friend, Lesley. We cheered with others in the hallway outside the House chamber but had to go home before the Senate came back. So, I watched the rest from home and I cried happy tears when the Lt. Governor said, “By a vote of 36 to 14, the motion passes,” and then laughed when he very reluctantly reached for the gavel in order to shush the celebration. Nobody has ever wanted to pick up a gavel less in the history of people picking up gavels. Later that night I stood in the same spot looking for the fireworks that I couldn’t see but could hear booming and crackling their approval of this good, good day.
Today, Lesley and I went back to the Capitol and this time we cheered from inside the Senate gallery as the final vote passed. The celebration lasted even longer this time. The skies here in Jackson have been hazy for days as dust from the Saharan sandstorm makes its way over us.
If you can’t see the beauty of sand that’s taken the same path as the Middle Passage filling the air as our leaders debated and ultimately decided to remove a symbol that stood for protecting the right to enslave the humans who were forced on that same journey, well then—you just have no poetry in your soul. The sandstorm dust just makes things fuzzy when you’re outside or driving, but the setting sun through the windows of the Capitol building made that African sand look alive, like it was dancing, celebrating.
Changing the flag won’t make the poorest in our state rich or feed the hungry. Putting the old flag in a museum won’t make us better people. It won’t lessen the racism or wash away any of the white supremacy. It won’t make it any easier to acknowledge that those things are baked into the buildings around us and the dirt at our feet—but it might make us want to turn the soil a bit. Maybe we can water the good stuff and pull a few more weeds and see what kind of goodness grows.
Elizabeth Quinn makes her home in Northeast Jackson with her husband Percy and four children.