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Southern Cultures 8.1 (2002) 76-100

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The Banner That Won't Stay Furled

John Shelton Reed


Furl that Banner, for 'tis weary;
Round its staff 'tis drooping dreary;
Furl it, fold it, it is best:
For there's not a man to wave it,
And there's not a sword to save it,
And there is not one left to lave it
In the blood which heroes gave it;
And its foes now scorn and brave it;
Furl it, hide it--let it rest.

--Father Abram Ryan, "The Conquered Banner"

In April of 2001, 750,000 Mississippians went to the polls to decide whether to change their state flag. The old flag, adopted in 1894, prominently incorporates the Confederate battle flag, and a committee set up by the governor had proposed to replace it with a pattern of twenty stars on a blue field. The stars were apparently to represent the thirteen original colonies, the six nations and Indian tribes associated with the state, and the state of Mississippi itself, although it was also said that they represent Mississippi's status as the twentieth state. The important point was that they were not the Confederate flag.

The summer before in South Carolina, where the battle flag had flown for nearly a half-century over the statehouse, legislators from both parties, black and white, faced with an economic boycott of the state by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), agreed to move the flag to a new location next to a Confederate memorial on the statehouse grounds. Nobody was really happy with that arrangement, but most parties to the dispute seemed to take some satisfaction from the fact that their opponents were unhappy, too.

And in January 2001, after a running battle that had begun well before the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, the Georgia legislature voted to remove the Confederate emblem from its prominent place on the Georgia state flag, adopting a new, compromise flag that includes the former flag in a sort of catalog of historic flags. It looks like--well, it looks like a flag designed by a committee, and cartoonists have had fun with it. But it, too, seems to have done the job of imposing a sort of grumpy stalemate.

These three events were only the latest in a string of conflicts over Confederate symbols. Beginning seriously in the early 1990s, we have seen controversy over high school and university emblems, names, and mascots; police and National Guard and Boy Scout and Little League baseball insignia; flags flown by parks, cemeteries, historical sites, businesses, hotels, and college fraternities; seals of towns and organizations; customized automobile license plates; Confederate holidays and monuments; junior-high-school dress codes; workers' lunch-boxes; and no doubt other things I've missed. Up to a point, the Mississippi conflict was [End Page 77] virtually a replay of the South Carolina and Georgia disputes, and--except for its statewide scale and the national attention it received--a replay of most of the others as well. As franklin forts points out in this issue's "Living with Confederate Symbols," the players, the line-up, the arguments pro and con tend to be pretty much the same, again and again.

The new flag was endorsed by nearly every Mississippian that anyone ever heard of: the present governor and five other statewide elected officials; the former governor who headed the panel that proposed the new flag; the state conference of the NAACP; the bishops of the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Methodist churches, leaders of the Presbyterian Church, and the Reverend Donald Wildmon, a nationally influential leader of the Christian Right; the Jackson Clarion Ledger (Mississippi's major newspaper), all the other daily papers in the state [End Page 78] that I was able to track down, the student newspaper at the University of Mississippi, and the Mississippi Business Journal; the Mississippi Tourism Association, the Mississippi Economic Council, and the Chambers of Commerce in most of the state's major towns; the Mississippi Manufacturers Association and other trade and professional associations; the...