The more I thought about it, the more I realized I can’t write about Oxford, or even Mississippi, without talking about the flag. You know. That one.
Back in the winter, I found myself in the mountains of North Carolina, and near Morganton, on the edge of Interstate 40, I saw a giant 20×30 Confederate battle flag flapping furiously in the wind. As one who grew up in the Southland, a straight cisgender child of the white working poor, that flag has held many images and emotions for me over the years.
My earliest memories are of it being in the state of Mississippi flag – the flag that hung in my school classroom, the flag that hung at the city hall that also housed the library in my small town, the flag that meant home.
It was the large emblem on top of The General Lee, the car that was the real star in the Dukes of Hazard, my favorite show as a child. As a poor white child with an accent, seeing other poor white people with accents who routinely outsmarted the Powers that tried to hold us down was life-giving to me. I did not notice how white their world was on that show, and how little that lined up with my life in a county that was mostly Black.
That flag was most often used as a visible placeholder for The South – almost like it was our logo – and we were proud of it, the way Red Sox fans are proud of that pair of socks on their merch.
I was taught both implicitly and explicitly that the US had two teams, and our team was Southern, and this was our logo, our symbol. I think that is what the “Heritage, Not Hate” people are getting at. It was an easy visual placeholder for all the feelings that go into being Southern – or at least a certain kind of Southern, from a certain race, from a certain socio-economic class.
I grew up 50 miles from the University of Mississippi, where most of the educated people in my life had matriculated. They all loved Ole Miss football, and had the battle flag – the Rebel flag, we called it – on all their flag poles, their team merch, their ball caps, and their license plates because the battle flag WAS the team logo, their mascot at the time was a literal Confederate Colonel and they were (and are) the Ole Miss Rebels.
Pride of team and pride of region got conflated for me and people like me. Most of the respectable people – our bankers, ministers, lawyers – all were Ole Miss people, and they all waved the battle flag, hung it outside their offices, put it on the business cards, even. It was hard to not see it as a sign of respectability and something to aspire to be a part of.
As a Marine, I had a poster of the battle flag taped inside my wall locker in the barracks, a reminder of home when I was far away from home, in a land where people did not sound like me, or think like me, or eat like me. The feelings I had anchored to that visual cue were as real as the memories that waft back when I smell catfish frying.
The people who look like me and had my childhood – I get where they come from with their “Heritage Not Hate” comments. People like me – white children of the working class, born into families with few advantages, who knew the struggles of a Dollar General Christmas and the humiliations of government commodity cheese – had nothing to be proud of. But we were of this region, this marvelous place, where the flowers bloom year-round and the fish practically jump in your boat and the biscuits rise with hope every morning and the sweet tea is strong enough your back teeth hurt.
If our ancestors had failed to get rich here they had, against desperate odds, survived and left their mark on the future. And this logo, this flag, was our reminder of that fact. We existed. We mattered. We were here, by God, and you would notice us.
As a student, I would get engrossed in the history of the Civil War. I would walk the sacred ground at Shiloh, where nearly 4,000 people died in less than 48 hours. I would visit the quarters of enslaved people in old plantations. I would read slave narratives and learn of the horrors of slavery. I had always been taught that war was over the rights of states to determine their destinies, but I would learn that wars tended to be fought over money when all is said and done and that this one was no different. Those 4000 folks died at Shiloh because of what that flag represented – the right of white people to own, breed, and sell Black people.
And I do believe that for many of us, people like me, race played little conscious part in our displaying of that flag. In the same way that huge numbers of fans of the Atlanta Braves proudly wore a mascot that mocked and appropriated Native cultures with no conscious thought of native cultures, we were blissfully ignorant of the impact our actions carried. We knew the past but were caught up in the present.
As a child in Mississippi, I was surrounded by Black bodies, but I was an adult before I began to develop true relationships of mutuality and love with people who had Black skin and was trusted with their stories. I learned they had very different images attached to the memory of the battle flag – that they saw it the way a Jew viewed a swastika, say, and not the symbol of regional pride it was for someone like me.
That flag belongs in a history book – the same way we put other failed ideas and images in the history books so we remember to not do them again. The same way people tour memorials at Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen, to remind us of the horrors we are capable of.
I felt all of that and much more that morning as I drove west on Interstate 40. I thought how sad it was that a person could erect a symbol they knew would distress their neighbors. I thought about how shallow their lives must be that the only outward symbol of the regional pride they felt was one they knew would cause at best anger and at worst fear.
And, I must say, I felt tremendous pride that I got to play a small part in getting that emblem removed from Mississippi’s state flag through the organizing work I do in faith communities here. If I live to be a thousand, the day they took it down from the Capitol here in Jackson for the last time will always be one of my proudest days.
Whatever complicated stories exist in the backstory of people like me, these days the battle flag symbolizes not a region or a sports team but white supremacy and domestic terrorism. It is a symbol of terror, and it belongs in a museum, where it can be explained in its context, alongside other failed ideas we have tried and found wanting.