Goodbye to a Symbol That Told Black Americans to ‘Know Your Place’ 1

The onslaught began the day I was born.

As my mother made her way to the hospital, hundreds of Confederate flags lined the streets. It was Confederate Memorial Day, 1966, exactly 100 years since the holiday was first celebrated, and the celebrations that day were particularly fervent in the aftermath of recent advances in the civil rights movement: the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. The laws were changing, but the iconic symbol of white supremacy and Black oppression could still be enlisted to send a message.

And the messages were everywhere. The landscape of my childhood was overwritten with monuments to and symbols of the Confederacy: They were in the names of roads, bridges, buildings, schools, parks, other public works and counties. And the state flag of Mississippi, incorporating the Confederate battle flag in its top inner corner, was among the most conspicuous.

Its message was a kind of synecdoche, a part standing in for the whole: The South may have lost the Civil War — a war fought to maintain slavery and white supremacy — but Mississippi would not be inclusive of all her citizens except in the continuing narrative of white dominion over Black subjects. The inclusion of the battle flag within the state flag served as a visual reminder of white Mississippians’ allegiance to that white supremacist heritage and was indicative of the new ways the state would find to maintain the second-class status of Black Americans. It waved to us again and again: Know your place.

Now, this symbol of white supremacy is coming down. Last Sunday, lawmakers in Mississippi voted, finally, to replace the state flag, and on Tuesday the governor signed the measure into law.

I can’t say with any certainty that, had its fate been put to a popular referendum, a majority of white Mississippians would have voted to let the flag go. In 2001, nearly two-thirds of voters still elected to keep it, and there was plenty of opposition to its removal ahead of Sunday’s vote. That opposition is at the root of what makes Black Americans constantly confront the sense of being unwelcome in the place that is our home, a place where we should be able to expect justice and equal protection under the law.

Growing up I felt early on that sense of dislocation, something akin to what the writer and scientist E.O. Wilson referred to as “psychological exile.” That is, even in my native land, I felt rendered an outsider whose history was not represented — or if it was, was not represented accurately.

On Ship Island, a barrier island off the Gulf Coast held by Black Union soldiers during the Civil War, for instance, a monument had been erected to the Confederate soldiers who had been interned there, but there was, until recently, no mention of the Black troops who guarded them. Such are the ways the monumental landscape, of which the flag is part, has erased the collective history of Mississippi and replaced it with a singular one, meant to glorify whites only.

My mother knew well the various means that white Mississippians employed — both legally and extralegally — to maintain Black subordination and white supremacy. She’d grown up in the era of Jim Crow segregation and was 11 years old in 1955 when Emmett Till was murdered.

A photograph taken outside the courthouse in Sumner County, where the trial of the men accused of Till’s abduction and murder was held, shows a large gathering of African-Americans. They stand at the entrance to the courthouse or sit at the base of the Confederate monument on the lawn. You can see the words “Our Heroes” emblazoned beneath the battle flag graven there. Though you cannot see the state flag, it hangs there, too.

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.

Natasha Trethewey is a professor of English at Northwestern University and the author of the forthcoming “Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir.”

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