The Mississippi that Might Still Be
When I heard that Mississippi during this massive moment of potential change was focusing on its racist flag, at first I thought, oh, dear Lord —that’s what Mississippians think matters now?
I lose count when I try to say how many generations I’ve been from Mississippi (’cause, you know, we’re not very good at math down here.) I’ve cycled through all the stages of relationships with the state, from the ignorant “it’s the sea I swim in” to “you don’t like my home state?” to “what the hell do you mean all our building are named for racists?” to “don’t think I’m proud to be from that place” to “the greatest American heroes are Black Mississippians” to “Me, I’m from Memphis.”
Despite all my years of living in the state and researching its history, not long ago I learned a new thing. The Mississippi I know today—one whose leaders tend to land on the wrong side of the racist equation—didn’t have to be. We weren’t on a straight line to stubbornly cling to our racist past like beggar lice on white socks. Over a hundred years ago, we stood at a crossroads. Our governor offered us the choice of a future based not on racism and hate and lynching of Black Mississippians but on racial reparations.
Let me repeat that: the governor of Mississippi in 1900 condemned lynching and urged the state to look to racial reparations for our future.
Governor Andrew Longino in his 1900 inaugural address warned that capitalism (i.e, the money) would not come to a state where “life and property…are not protected by the courts.” He recited incidents of mob rule in Mississippi (against Black and sometimes white victims) and urged listeners to stop with the unlawful lynchings. He proposed that the sheriff or constable of any county where a prisoner was taken from the county jail and “mobbed” be, ipso facto, fired and the family of the one unlawfully mobbed be paid damages for the crime committed (The Other Mississippi, David Sansing, Nautilus Publishing, 2018).
Can you imagine if the people of Mississippi had listened? Mississippi could have been the leader in economic reparations for lynchings. Instead, of course, Mississippi chose to march forward in racism and now flounders at the bottom of every economic indicator known to woman. (Of course, Longino had his own racist problems, among them the founding of notorious Parchman Prison.)
So now I’m thinking Mississippi’s decision to finally retire the racist state flag might give the state another chance. We can stuff the racist flag in the garbage pail and give up a heritage that never should have been ours in the first place. Instead, we could start paying reparations for the harm done to Black Mississippians for generations.
Folks say reparations are unwieldy and undoable, but that’s not the case in Mississippi. We know very well who during the Civil Rights era was lynched, who was shot on the courthouse lawn by a legislator, who was killed for looking the wrong way at a white woman. We know their descendants. The state can start the movement for reparations at a local then state level as a counterweight to spreading its racism to the rest of the country for so many years (oh, yes, we did—we created poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and almost every other racist barrier to voting equality.) The warm and welcoming Mississippi so many love and celebrate could become reality, not by ignoring our racism but by methodically working to put it to rights.
Almost twenty years ago when the state voted on changing its flag, I wrote an essay entitled, “If It’s Just One More Thing, Why Does It Feel Like the Last?” (2004, Fourth Genre) in which I gave up on the state and terminated our relationship. After a lifetime of watching as Mississippi squandered yet another chance to prove it wasn’t racist, the failed flag vote was the final blow, a Rubicon I could not recross.
May Mississippi by its future actions embarrass me terribly for giving up on the state too early.