Home » OPINION » Columns » TODD SMITH — Mississippi breaks shackles from its racist past by changing the state flag

TODD SMITH — Mississippi breaks shackles from its racist past by changing the state flag

TODD SMITH

Mississippi has broken the shackles from its racist past by removing the state flag and its outdated confederate battle symbol that has weighed the state down for far too long, costing the state far too much.

In the wake of defiant voices and common sense from major businesses, the sports world, music stars and the public, and with the backdrop of continued racial injustice and police brutality, the Mississippi legislature did the right thing – lowering for the last time a flag that hurt more than it helped, caused more pain than pride and kept down my home state that has so much more to offer, so much more to be proud of.

The flag – the only state banner with a Confederate symbol that has flown for more than 125 years and inflicted deep racial scars through the years – will be no more.

Lawmakers were confronted by a wave of calls from across the state and nation as opposition gained momentum spanning racial, religious, partisan and cultural divides. Football and basketball coaches paraded through the Capitol urging a change. A varied assortment that included country music stars, the state’s Black and White Baptist conventions, civil rights organizations and associations of bankers, manufacturers and librarians also indicated their opposition.

A Black Lives Matter protest in front of the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion in June brought cheers to distance from Confederate symbols. The Mississippi Baptist Convention intoned that removing the rebel image from the state flag was a moral move. Business organizations argued it handcuffed economic development for one of the poorest states in America.

The bill passed by the state legislature requires the current flag to come down in the next couple of weeks and charges a state agency with devising a plan for a “prompt, dignified and respectful” removal. The measure would also create a nine-member commission to design a replacement that can’t include the Confederate symbol and must include the words, “In God We Trust.”

I’ve seen several flag designs including the Stennis flag featuring 19 blue stars in a circle around a larger 20th star (a nod to Mississippi being the 20th state to join the U.S.), and another that contains the state seal, the popular choice of Lt. Gov. Delbert Hoseman, House Speaker Philip Gunn and other state leaders.

From a branding perspective, the Spin Cycle would like to see a new identity that plays on a different, beautiful and uniting symbol, one that is steeped in history: a Magnolia flower on a background of cobalt blue. Much like the immensely popular – and noncontroversial – South Carolina state flag that boasts a Palmetto tree (the state tree) and a crescent moon. That would forge a proud new identity to inspire hope, cultivate unity and signal a blossoming future for the state that has so much going for it. That would be iconic and strong!

The final design, due by Sept. 14, must be approved by voters in November, or else the commission would have to go back to the drawing board. Voters would get a second chance to weigh in on a different design a year later, in November 2021.

Business groups, Black activists and others have pushed for years to remove the Confederate battle emblem – white stars set on a blue X against a red background. Some see it as a symbol of slavery and segregation, while others argue it makes businesses reluctant to locate in state.

The current flag’s supporters consider the banner a tribute to ancestors who fought in the Civil War. They point to a 2001 state referendum that saw voters overwhelmingly choose to keep the flag.

However, across the U.S., statues with Confederate symbolism have come down recently, either toppled by protesters or removed by officials. Last Saturday, Princeton University said it would remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its public-policy school because of the former president’s “racist thinking and policies.”

Mississippi began grappling with the flag once again this spring as a result of the death of George Floyd in the custody of the Minneapolis police, which rapidly evolved into a sprawling expression of fury and exasperation over the countless manifestations of the nation’s tangled racial history.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association said earlier this month it wouldn’t hold championship events in states where the Confederate emblem “has a prominent presence.” The NCAA Board of Governors said the ban would mainly affect Mississippi.

Also, the Southeastern Conference’s commissioner said Mississippi had to remove the emblem from its flag if it wanted to keep hosting championships. That would bar the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State from hosting the most important conference games, which are big money-makers for universities.

We remember the unsuccessful efforts in the past to settle the flag debate. Two years ago, a top Republican in the state House of Representatives proposed a compromise in which Mississippi would have two state flags, one with the Confederate emblem and one without it.

The flag with the Confederate emblem became Mississippi’s official flag in 1894, nearly three decades after the end of the Civil War. The state’s governor at the time, a Confederate veteran and former colonel of the Second Mississippi Infantry Regiment, noted that the state lacked an official flag and urged lawmakers to adopt one, according to the state historical society.

Mississippi is writing a new legacy, a story of positive progress, removing a divisive symbol that has sewn hatred and hurt for more than a century. A new flag will help heal the state’s – and South’s – soul.

Now, as we emerge from the smoldering embers of racism, we stand on the precipice of possibility, a bold new future together, freer than before, breaking the chains of an inhumane past that has held us back far too long! It’s our time, Mississippi!

» TODD SMITH is co-founder, president and chief executive officer of Deane | Smith, a full-service branding, PR, marketing and advertising firm with offices in Jackson. The firm – based in Nashville, Tenn. – is also affiliated with Mad Genius. Contact him at todd@deanesmithpartners.com, follow him @spinsurgeon and like the ageny on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/deanesmithpartners, and join us on LinkedIn  http://www.linkedin.com/company/deane-smith-&-partners.

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