Update: After you finish reading this post check out Brooks Simpson’s thoughtful response to Gordon-Reed’s essay.
One of the most common tropes embraced in reference to the post- Civil War period is the idea of a ‘white Northern retreat from Reconstruction.’ For many, the shift occurred during the mid to late 1870s for a number of reasons, including the threat of labor strikes, the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny or the realization that the South’s racial problems could only be solved locally. Reconstruction’s abandonment followed significant gains on the civil rights front from the passage of three constitutional amendments to military intervention that led to black political action. The white North’s abandonment of Reconstruction points inextricably to missed opportunities and our own inability to deal honestly with deep racial problems. [click to continue…]
Here is a pic of one of my favorite Civil War soldier monuments at Forest Hills Cemetery here in Boston. It’s about two miles from my home and as we are just about past the peak of the Fall foliage season it was the perfect day for a walk. Oh, and the temperature today hit 70 degrees. The sculptor of this particular monument – one of the earliest monuments to be dedicated after the war – is none other than Martin Millmore.
The decision yesterday to remove the state flag from the campus of the University of Mississippi followed votes by the Student and Faculty Senates. In the case of the University of Southern Mississippi all it took was a decision by President Rodney D. Bennett earlier this morning. Here is his statement:
I have chosen to raise American flags on all University of Southern Mississippi flagpoles to remind the University community of what unites us. We have all chosen to work, study and live in a country in which debates like those around the state flag of Mississippi can take place and ideas can be civilly expressed and advanced. While I love the state of Mississippi, there is passionate disagreement about the current state flag on our campuses and in our communities. I am looking forward to a time when this debate is resolved and USM raises a state flag that unites us.
I can’t help but think that this is a rather hollow statement on the part of the president. Mississippi’s current state flag is certainly controversial and divisive but the president can’t seem to bring himself to state why. It is possible that as USM’s first black president, Bennett wanted to avoid injecting race into this issue, but, of course, that is exactly what this is about. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be laid out in such explicit terms, but I believe more is required given the absence of any vote by the student senate or campus debate that preceded the president’s decision in Oxford.
If you can’t state openly what this controversy is about on a college campus, where can you?
Update: University of Southern Mississippi removed the state flag from campus earlier today.
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. [click to continue…]
This morning the University of Mississippi’s campus police took down the state flag. It will be moved, along with petitions for its removal by students and faculty, to the university’s archive. This comes after both students and faculty voted overwhelmingly that the presence of the Confederate battle flag (even on the state flag) has no place on campus.
Interim Chancellor Morris Stocks first joined other state and university leaders calling for a change in the state flag in a statement last June. “The University of Mississippi community came to the realization years ago that the Confederate battle flag did not represent many of our core values, such as civility and respect for others,” Stocks said. “Since that time, we have become a stronger and better university. We join other leaders in our state who are calling for a change in the state flag.”
Stocks noted that the decision to no longer fly the state flag was not an easy one, adding that the flag means different things to different people. “As Mississippi’s flagship university, we have a deep love and respect for our state,” Morris said. “Because the flag remains Mississippi’s official banner, this was a hard decision. I understand the flag represents tradition and honor to some. But to others, the flag means that some members of the Ole Miss family are not welcomed or valued. That is why the university faculty, staff and leadership have united behind this student-led initiative.”
Stocks noted that other public universities and local governments have already taken this step, and he continues to encourage state leaders to create a new flag. “Mississippi and its people are known far and wide for hospitality and a warm and welcoming culture. But our state flag does not communicate those values,” Stocks said. “Our state needs a flag that speaks to who we are. It should represent the wonderful attributes about our state that unite us, not those that still divide us.”
Whether this decision by Mississippi’s flagship university has any impact on the broader discussion about the state flag has yet to be seen, but this is a significant step for Ole Miss and one that the community can take pride in. It’s significant because it offers us some sense of the direction that the next generation of Mississippians will go in dealing with their Confederate past.