On July 20, 2015 the Confederate battle flag was lowered from the statehouse grounds in Columbia, South Carolina following an order issued by Governor Nikki Haley. Regardless of which side you were on many believed that the move was purely political to help with her own national ambitions. Questions surrounding the governor’s motivation make it difficult to place the decision within a broader historical context that stretches back to 1962 when the Confederate flag was first raised atop the statehouse. On the other hand, the order this morning at the University of Mississippi to remove the state flag (which includes a Confederate flag in its design) from campus must be acknowledged as a crucial moment in that institution’s long and complex relationship with the flag.
According to historian John Coski the University of Mississippi adopted the flag “as an all-but-official school symbol” in the early 1950s and was embraced “with distinctly political undertones” coinciding with the rise of the Dixiecrat Party. The waving of Confederate flags, the singing of “Dixie” and the presence of the Colonel Reb mascot became staples of Ole Miss football games. During the height of the Civil Rights Movement the flag was picked up by students as their symbol of resistance against school integration.
The arrival of James Meredith to campus highlighted the important role the Confederate flag played as a popular symbol of white unity on campus. On the day that Meredith was believed to arrive on campus students sang “Glory, Glory, Segregation” to the tune of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” while another group of students lowered the American flag from the campus flagpole to make room for the Confederate flag. Student sentiment fell lock step in line with the rest of white Mississippi and much of the white South. There was no mistaking the flag’s meaning.
In the last few decades the University of Mississippi has taken significant steps to distance itself from its Confederate past by discontinuing the singing of “Dixie” and no longer featuring the Reb mascot at football games . The recent vote by faculty and students to remove the state flag follows that of three other state universities and a number of cities and towns that will no longer fly it on public ground. I wasn’t aware that so many communities had already taken steps to ban the flag or to call for its change, but that does not diminish the significance of this decision.
The stand taken by students at Ole Miss places their state-funded school in an interesting, if not difficult, relationship with their lawmakers in Jackson and a sizable percentage of residents who do not want to see the flag’s design changed. For now tax dollars will go to a school that refuses to be associated with its own state flag. It sits out there like a sore thumb. It should also not go unnoticed that the form of resistance at work here completes the circle. In the 1960s students embraced the flag as a symbol of resistance against change instituted by the federal government. Today we saw the result of the work of the children and grandchildren of that generation rejecting that very same symbol in resistance against their own state government.
Whatever resistance there is throughout the state, the student community in Oxford is pointing in no uncertain terms to what they see as their future. Regardless of whether state officials heed these calls, the game is over. It didn’t take another Northern invasion or a bunch of radicals to bring about this day. All it took was enough of Mississippi’s own to pound the last nail into the Confederate flag’s coffin.
We are getting to the point where enough people have spoken to declare that the display of the Confederate flag is not appropriate in any public space.