Symbols are extremely important in our culture and society as they serve as a connection to something greater than our immediate daily lives. Symbols can represent a collective ideology or a set of norms that guide a community of people, a state or a nation. Symbols are powerful and can elicit intense positive and negative emotions.
Symbols can serve as a springboard for discussion and debate challenging people to carry on demanding conversations and dialogue. Symbols bridge generations and connect people to the historical past. Symbols can also discount, marginalize, and exclude groups of people as ideals shift and questions arise as to the manner and focus of history narration.
The current Mississippi flag, a flag that prominently displays a Confederate emblem, was adopted by the State legislature in 1894. The blue cross with 13 stars over a red background, the Confederate flag, was first used a Confederate battle flag in 1861 before being incorporated into the Stainless Banner, a battle flag formally adopted by the Confederacy on May 1, 1863.
Since the end of the Civil War, the Confederate flag has been used for many purposes, initially as a way to commemorate Confederate soldiers who lost their lives fighting to uphold the institution of slavery. At the turn of the 20th century, the Confederate flag began being used by white Southerners as a symbol to support the narrative the Civil War was fought purely because of states’ rights.
In 1948, in response to President Truman’s civil rights agenda, the Dixiecrat party adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of resistance to the federal government and as a means to perpetuate and preserve the Jim Crow South. The Klu Klux Klan began to use the Confederate flag in earnest in the 1950s and 1960s as a symbol of white supremacy and in defiance of civil rights.
Regardless of the original intent of the creators of the Confederate flag, it has become a symbol of marginalization and hatred. Mississippi is the last state to still feature the Confederate flag on one of its most prominent symbols, its state flag.
The current Mississippi flag is not representative of a modern Mississippi because it is a constant reminder of the extreme social injustice bestowed upon our African-American brothers and sisters. This in and of itself is more than a sufficient justification to change the current Mississippi flag to something that is representative of all of us; but, there is also an undeniable negative economic impact to the state, one that impedes internal economic growth and one that deters outside investment.
Richard Florida, author of The Rise of Creative Class, theorizes that thriving urban areas and cities are doing so because of the creative economy, namely talented and educated professionals who work in knowledge-based industries like business and finance, technology, health care and medicine, law, and education.
Florida argues that cities employing creative class development and entrepreneurial ecosystem development strategies achieve far greater economic prosperity than those that focus on traditional economic recruitment of manufacturing businesses. More important, Florida argues the only way to achieve economic prosperity is through the implementation of strategies aimed at the development of three T’s – talent, technology, and tolerance.
With respect to tolerance, Florida has found a positive relationship between economic growth in areas with above average concentrations of immigrants, gays, and lesbians and areas with elevated levels of integration across racial and ethnic lines. High concentrations of immigrants and gay people as well as integrated communities can only occur when there exists an openness and celebration of diversity and inclusiveness.
Symbols, such as statues and flags, can be inclusive and unifying or exclusive and divisive. With respect to our state flag, we knowingly and willingly chose the latter sending a continuing and ongoing message to certain Mississippians they are not included and are less than the rest of us. This is socially unacceptable, creates a chilling effect on creative class development, and hinders internal economic development in Mississippi.
The state flag also negatively impacts outside investment. Coupled with other “unforced errors” such as House Bill 1523, Mississippi is losing out on outside investment through traditional recruitment strategies. This has been confirmed by two of Mississippi’s most well respected and successful economic developers, Joe Max Higgins, CEO of the Golden Triangle Development Link, and David Rumbarger, CEO of the Community Development Foundation in Tupelo.
Skeptics may say that the loss of economic opportunities in Mississippi attributable to the flag is anecdotal or indeterminable, but the data suggests otherwise. According to a recent U.S. News and World Report study, Mississippi continues to rank towards the bottom of many socio-economic benchmarks, including access to healthcare, education performance, economic growth and development, and venture capital investing.
Is the state flag the sole impediment to progress in Mississippi? No, but it is symbolic of larger societal and economic inequality issues, many of which we will not be able to adequately or appropriately address until we change the flag. The time is now.
» Matthew P. McLaughlin is an attorney with McLaughlin, PC in Jackson, Mississippi, and serves as the executive director of the Mississippi Brewers Guild. Matthew’s passion is working with creative and entrepreneurial-minded people and organizations, having worked with and advised hundreds of entrepreneurs, startups, and social innovators throughout the Southeastern United States. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 601-487-4550, or you may visit www.mclaughlinpc.com for more information.
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