Dixeland continues to ‘look away, look away’

By ELIJAH JONES,

The tiny town of Leakesville, Mississippi is where my mother was born and raised. Even though I grew up in Hattiesburg, my family did live in Leakesville for a year or so, where both my parents taught school. 

After returning permanently to Hattiesburg, we visited Leakesville several times a year, for plenty of reasons. 

The town's population has held steady at barely 1,000 residents for 50 years but, and I'm not kidding, a sizable percentage of the folks who live there are members of my mother's family.

During my 1960s childhood visits to Leakesville, African-Americans were very much aware of their place in Mississippi society. 

I have no horror stories to share, but certain things from those times were intended to remind me of "my place." 

There was a restaurant/cafe in Leakesville, just a short walk from my Aunt Margaret's house. 

They sold short orders foods, like hamburgers, but it was better known as a hangout for the locals. I always felt a little uncomfortable going there.

We'd walk to the little shop to buy a bag of chips or a bottle of soda, but to do so required us going to an entrance in the back of the building. 

We were not allowed in the serving area at all. In those days, even we children understood the requirement as simply the way things were. I also remember a Confederate flag peering through a window in front of the building.

Back then, I was too young to understand what the flag was all about.  But as I got older, regardless of what flag supporters say about "heritage," the Confederate flag earned a different kind of heritage in my mind.

Travelling the highways of Mississippi decades ago, whenever I saw the Dixie flag, I interpreted it as a warning of sorts.

A way of telling me, that as a black person, I was not welcome there. Seeing the Rebel flag displayed anywhere struck a bit of fear in my heart. 

I honestly interpreted it as a sign of danger. Today, that sense of danger no longer accompanies my seeing the Confederate flag. 

But here in the 21st century, wherever it finds a home, the place where that flag flies is a place I'd rather not be, and certainly not spend my money.

As most Mississippians know, ours is the only state flag in the nation still featuring the Confederate battle flag.

Mississippi flag supporters passionately observe it as part of our state's history, even though it is not the state's original flag design. 

During the Civil War years, Mississippi left the union in 1861 and began using the Bonnie Blue flag. It had a blue background with a single five-pointed star featured prominently in its middle. 

Our current state flag was adopted in 1894 by the state Legislature. 

Today, it still represents Mississippi, with the Confederate battle flag as its focal point, nestled in the flag's canton corner. 

At one time, other southern states also included the Confederate battle flag, with Mississippi being the only state in the South continuing to do so. 

Our cousin, the state of Georgia, in a political fight of its own, was the final state to remove the Confederate image from its flag in 2003. 

But the controversy continues here in Mississippi.  Changing our state's flag was even put to a vote in 2001, at which time, and to no one's surprise, an overwhelming majority of Mississippians voted to keep the present design.

There are those who fight tirelessly for Mississippi's flag. 

They look to it with a sense of pride, even romance, for times gone by.  To which, I say, thank goodness those times are indeed, behind us. 

A sense of romance or pride are not what I feel when I see the state flag of Mississippi. 

Rather, I feel sadness.  I think back to that little country store in Leakesville, where I had to enter through a back door, with the flag of the Confederacy staring at me as I walked by. 

I'm always one to consider the mindset of others, who may have different views than my own, but I wonder. 

To those who support Mississippi's state flag and with it, the battle flag of the Confederacy, I have to ask. 

Why did those who came before you not defend the flag and denounce its being co-opted by hate groups, such as the Ku Kux Klan? 

The KKK has proudly and defiantly waved the flag of the Confederacy for over a century. Even today, the flag is used as an act of in-your-face defiance by hate groups. 

I think of those times when I see the Confederate flag used to intimidate African-Americans, and even other minorities.

You don't have to go back decades for those instances, either.  During the recent protests and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, a young woman was run down and killed by a man where many of the protesters proudly marched, waving Confederate flags.

I think of Dylann Roof. He is the young man charged with murdering nine church members, during prayer meeting, at Charleston, South Carolina's Emmanuel African-Methodist Episcopal Church. Young Dylann drove around town in a car sporting a license plate featuring the Confederate emblem. 

His social media page also includes a photo of himself holding the flag.

Following that tragic incident, Nikki Haley, then governor of South Carolina, showed real courage. 

Governor Haley had the Confederate battle flag removed from the flagpole, where it had waved for years on South Carolina's state capitol campus.

And then there's the great state of Mississippi, my home state, crippled by our cowardly state officeholders and legislature. 

Their go-to defense is to remind us of the 2001 referendum, when 65 percent of Mississippians voted to keep the flag. 

But as history has often proven, the majority position is not always the right one. 

Imagine if the issue of keeping slavery legal had been put to a vote in 1860.

State flag supporters were outraged when several Mississippi municipalities and state institutions of higher learning refused to fly the state flag, including the City of Hattiesburg and The University of Southern Mississippi. 

But where is their anger when they see the Confederate battle flag paraded by today's hate groups? 

No outrage to be found then. 

I'd say their silence on the issue qualifies as consent.

Apples and oranges, comparing the two? 

Not to me. 

When I see Mississippi's state flag, I also see the Battle flag of the Confederacy. (Don't you?)

To me, they'll always be one and the same.   

It's easy for us to remain inward, not caring what those outside our state think of the state flag, or of Mississippi in general. 

Personally, I'm one of our state's most vocal cheerleaders, often defending the state I call home. 

I like to tell people, Mississippi does not live up to the stereotypes of how we're often portrayed in popular culture. 

I only wish, in my heart-of-hearts, we could show, in the most dramatic way possible, how much our state has changed.

Laurin Stennis has the right idea.  If you haven't heard of Laurin, I'm sure you're familiar with her last name. 

She's the granddaughter of Mississippi political legend, Senator John Stennis. 

Laurin was born and raised in Mississippi, left for a while and, like me, returned to the state of her birth. (Mississippi has a way of calling her children home.)

Ms. Stennis admits that her family's thoughts and feelings on the issue of race have evolved over the years. 

Also like me, she has worked hard to educate those who don't really know our state. 

Oh, sure, we're not without our challenges when it comes to race relations. But that would be the case with any of these United States of America. 

Still, Mississippi is far from being some racist backwater, as we're often portrayed in pop culture.

I learned a new word preparing this column: "vexillogy." 

Simple definition, "the study of flags." 

Ms. Stennis did her own research on the history of flag designs. Her goal was to create a flag for the state of Mississippi that best captures our history, and hopes for the future.  Importantly, she did not want to deny our past, nor romanticize those parts of our history that so divided us. 

Ms. Stennis has done an outstanding job with her design. 

I only wish our own governor and state Legislature had the courage of South Carolina. 

Mississippi's political leaders should follow the example set by that state's governor. 

Take the reigns and do their jobs, doing what's best for our state. 

It is not too late for Mississippi to step into the future; it's just time. 

It's time to deliver a new flag for the great state of Mississippi. 

A flag that does a better job of telling America, and the world, who we are.

Elijah Jones is a writer and a proud graduate of the Hattiesburg Public School System and the University of Southern Mississippi. Send him an email (or two or three) at: edjhubtown@aol.com.