Many southern states have a saying: “Thank god for Mississippi.” However badly their state may rank, whether it’s in education, employment, or even life expectancy, they can often count on Mississippi to rank lower than they do..
And one particular source of embarrassment for the Magnolia state is its flag. While it’s not the only state flag with confederate symbols on it, it is the last to bear what we typically think of as the Confederate flag. That may be about to change however as state legislators have confirmed a referendum on a new flag to replace the current one. It has also been confirmed that Mississippi’s current flag will not be up for re-election.
New proposals were submitted to the state from July to the 14th of September 2020. The referendum will coincide with the US presidential election on the 3rd of November with the winner being officially adopted in the following legislative session. In the event that the proposed design is voted against, the Commission to Redesign the Mississippi State Flag can reconvene to propose a different design. Further votes can be held until a ‘yes’ vote is achieved and the state will remain without an official state flag until one is chosen.
But the question remains; How and Why does a state still to this day use such symbols in an official capacity, especially as the Confederacy fought to destroy the Union in order to preserve slavery in America? As general-turned-president Ulysses S. Grant told Otto Von Bismarck one year after leaving office: “As soon as slavery fired upon the flag it was felt, we all felt, even those who did not object to slaves, that slavery must be destroyed. We felt that it was a stain to the Union that men should be bought and sold like cattle.”
And the South left no doubt about its reasons for secession. “Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth,” Alexander Hamilton Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy said in his Cornerstone speech, “that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Mississippi’s state flag, and by extension many of the monuments to Confederate icons all over America, are there thanks in no small part to the ‘Lost Cause’ myth. This is the belief not only that slavery had little to do with the war, but that the southern cause was justified. Many schools in the south have taught the Lost Cause as historical fact despite all evidence to the contrary. And many groups in America have worked to push the myth, turning it into a mainstream view.
In the decades after the war, Southern Democrats gained more political influence after the former Confederates were restored the right to vote and run for office. This is where groups known as the Redeemers gained prominence. They wanted a return to Conservative Democratic rule, opposing the Republican-led state and federal governments which to them was a betrayal of their principles.
They also supported a return to white supremacy, seeking to deny black people any role in the postwar South. Many Redeemers were wealthy plantation owners and elites who had lost power in the Reconstruction period after the war. Confederate veterans and supporters also made up their numbers. The Redeemers helped make the phrase “the South shall rise again” so well known. Later generations would continue to pass laws keeping black citizens from enjoying the same rights as white citizens. Northern states passed many similar laws, but the human rights abuses of black Americans remained greater in the south.
One aspect of this era that is often overlooked is the impact it had on education in these states. While Yankees were learning the truth about the Civil War, Lincoln, and slavery, generations of children on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line were being taught the Lost Cause as historical truth. This was supported by groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), which also helped the commissioning of statues in many states,furthering its revisionist push.
To that end, the greatest damage the UDC and others like them would do wasn’t in town centres; it was in classrooms which played a pivotal role in “demanding textbooks for public schools that told the story of the war and the Confederacy from a definite southern point of view” according to communications studies scholar W. Stuart Towns.
School children “were subjected to the alternative reality of the Lost Cause,” Greg Huffman writes on FacingSouth.org, “a false version of U.S. history developed in response to Reconstruction that minimizes slavery’s central role in the Civil War, promotes the Confederacy’s aim as a heroic one, glorifies the Ku Klux Klan, and portrays the white South as the victim”
All of this helped perpetuate white supremacy in many states and in turn would maintain the oppressive Jim Crow laws that continued well into the 20th century. In his 1963 inaugural address, newly elected Alabama Governor George Wallace declared “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Mississippi changing its flag is not the end of the Lost Cause. Many schools still teach it and many insist that the Confederate cause had little to do with slavery. And what about Georgia? While Mississippi still flies what we think of as a Confederate flag, Georgia’s state flag is based on the actual flag officially used by the Confederacy during the Civil War. Georgia’s lawmakers have made no comments about changing it at the time of writing.
Symbolic acts such as taking down statues and changing flags are a start, especially when they are endorsed by state or federal governments. But as long as there are those in positions of power who insist that the Confederate cause was in any way justified, and as long as they have a hand in education then the Lost Cause will live on.
Photograph copyright Tony Webster