In the wake of the tragic shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, the issue of the Confederate flag came to the forefront of our discussions on race. I’ve never felt comfortable with the flag as a symbol because of its past history and present reality of being used for hatred and intimidation. However, I found myself feeling somewhat frustrated by news coverage that seemed to suggest that the Confederate flag means racism, and therefore racism solely comes out of the South.
I was born and raised a Yankee, but have lived in North Carolina for nearly 10 years now. I have news for everyone: hate and ignorance exists everywhere. I think the Confederate flag is just an easy symbol for us to point to that represents both an unhealthy dose of hate and ignorance. By this point, though, everyone should be realizing that the symbol means hate to some, and therefore, out of respect for those people, it should not be flown. That being said, the right to fly it falls under the right to free speech. So now it is a waiting game as hearts and minds change and voices speak out to demand those changes.
This week, I saw that hope for change in a story that I haven’t been seeing get too much fanfare in the media. The state flag of Mississippi still shows the Confederate symbol proudly waving in the upper left hand corner of their flag. But this past Monday morning at Ole Miss, the state flag was lowered on the campus.
Ole Miss is the school where Governor Ross Barnett attempted to block the entrance of its first black student, James Meredith, in 1962, using the same language of heritage we hear today in his “I love Mississippi” speech. When Mr. Meredith finally made it onto campus in his fourth attempt, he was guarded by US Marshals. A riot broke out, in which two men were killed and 166 US Marshals and 40 National Guardsmen were injured.
Recent history has been much brighter for Ole Miss. In 2002, the school commemorated the the 40th Anniversary of the desegregation of the school, unveiling a memorial. The following year, James Meredith’s son Joseph graduated as the top doctoral student at the University’s business school. In 2008, Ole Miss hosted the very first Presidential debate between John McCain and our soon-to-be first black President, Barack Obama.
Today, students of color represent twenty-five percent of the population. Ole Miss’ students come from 93 different countries around the world. Yet, it is still truly a state school, with 61% of students from the state of Mississippi. This diverse group banded together to pass a resolution to have the state flag removed from its campus. The school has now seen another huge step towards progress.
Although current governor Phil Bryant still does not support the decision, the students have taken action to seek a change that has been a long time coming. It gives me great hope to see young people valuing equality and respect for their fellow classmates. There are still an incredible amount of changes that need to be made to make our country a place that is equal for all, but I think we need to take the time to praise a step in the right direction. Removing a flag does not remove hate, but it sends a signal that these symbols and ideals aren’t acceptable anymore. The message of the removal means more to me than the removal of the flag itself.
I still don’t think change is fast enough, but that sense of urgency will keep us moving forward as we deal with these very old and entrenched wounds as well as the very real and continuingly inflicted ones.
I think this also represents that not all Southerners are the stereotype that the mass media tends to portray. Every place is full of individuals. Some of those individuals are going to continue to support hate, but the rest of us– our voices need to be louder and clearer.
If we make race a Southern problem, we are pigeonholing the issue and losing sight of a pain that is afflicting this entire nation.
I’m proud of the students at Ole Miss, and I’m proud of the institution for turning one small tide to help make this respected institution a place where everyone feels welcomed. Let’s all support and encourage change, demand more of it, and praise it when we see it. Thank you, Ole Miss. You’ve given me just the glimmer of hope I needed this week in these challenging times.
Photos courtesy of Mike Martinez
Taken in Gettysburg, PA