Together, the flags presided over the message soon delivered: the all-white jury’s acquittal of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, the men who would later brag to Look magazine about murdering the child. There is yet another message, implicit in the imagery of the photograph. If the Confederate battle flag alone could signify virulent and dangerous forms of white supremacy, as it has increasingly over the years, the communion of the state flag of Mississippi and the battle flag sent a yet more insidious message: The state will preside over persistent injustice, turning a blind eye to white violence against Blacks.
It was the continuing onslaught of that implicit message — that the lives of Black people mattered less than the lives of whites — that my mother was intent on countering as we navigated a landscape rife with it. Whenever we passed the state flag, often driving down the beach road that had been dedicated, on a plaque erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy, “The Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway,” my mother would sing to me the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” — the antislavery, abolitionist version that had morphed into an anthem for Union troops during the Civil War.
“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his truth is marching on. …” She sang to counteract the symbolic, psychic violence of that flag, to remind me of the struggle for — which means the possibility of — justice.
To Black Americans, Confederate symbols have always sent a variety of messages, and they are not innocuous. For too long, the symbolism of Mississippi’s flag has been complicit in sending a larger, national message of white supremacy — not the literal violence of murders by white supremacists or police brutality, but the figurative violence of the messages sent by juries who fail to convict or even indict officers accused of using unwarranted deadly force; the messages sent by police departments when they take no disciplinary action against officers with records of using excessive force; the messages sent by a nation turning a blind eye again and again to video evidence of police brutality or the racist policing of Black people going about their daily lives. All of it an onslaught saying, Black lives do not matter as much as white lives.
George Orwell wrote: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” The story of reunion and reconciliation between the North and the South after the Civil War wrote Black Americans out of the story, and monuments to the Confederacy, like Mississippi’s flag, helped to inscribe both a figurative and literal white supremacy onto the physical landscape and the psychic landscape of the American imagination.
This is why contests over what symbols remain are important battles in a broader struggle for social justice, and why the removal of the current flag in Mississippi is significant.
When symbols emblematic of white supremacy come down it means that the power to erect and maintain such symbols is shifting. Getting rid of the power of such symbols to visit a figurative violence upon African-Americans is a step toward ending the literal manifestations of institutionalized white supremacy. Even ceremonially renaming the street leading to the White House and painting on it a giant banner reading Black Lives Matter is akin to running a new flag up the pole. It is not an empty gesture, but a small step toward change, part of the larger, ongoing fight for justice. And it makes visible what has been invisible, giving it a kind of primacy.
I never thought I’d see this moment in my lifetime.