So vexillology is in the news. Vexillology (as fans of The Big Bang Theory should already know) is the study of flags. A spirited debate is taking place about South Carolina's law which dictates that the Confederate battle flag be prominently displayed on the grounds of the statehouse. This flag used to fly over the statehouse dome, but was moved to a Civil War monument the last time this debate raged, as a form of compromise that was deemed politically acceptable at the time.
It's an important debate to have. The state government is honoring a flag which many see as a racist symbol -- one used by those against civil rights since the 1940s (the "Dixiecrat" campaign of Strom Thurmond was the real launching point of the Confederate battle flag into the world of politics). Those against flying the flag, from President Obama on down, are arguing that the flag should be moved "to a museum" instead of flying in a place of honor on the statehouse grounds. The argument is that the flag is so offensive to so many that the state's government should not legitimize it by flying it at the people's statehouse.
I happen to agree with this argument, but I am astonished that those making it are currently giving the state of Mississippi such a pass. Here is the official state flag of Mississippi:
You will immediately note that the Confederate battle flag is incorporated into the state flag's design. Indeed, it's hard to miss. Which is why I am left scratching my head over why very few people in this debate seem to have noticed it.
I do understand that political battles must be fought one at a time, and that the church murders in Charleston is what is driving the debate in South Carolina right now. The spotlight is on South Carolina -- I get that. But how hard is it to add "and Mississippi's state flag" to any statement in this debate?
While the display of the Confederate battle flag on South Carolina's statehouse grounds is indeed offensive to many, at least it is only officially established in this one location. People in South Carolina don't see this image on their driver's licenses, on official state documents, or displayed in their courtrooms. Mississippi's citizens can't make the same claim. The state flag is present in hundreds of places in the state, making it in fact much worse than South Carolina's problem.
All across the South, states have incorporated their rebellious history into their state flags in subtle and not-so-subtle ways (the Washington Post has a good rundown of most of these). Some have elements of the "stars and bars," or the official Confederate flag (the Confederate battle flag was never actually adopted by the Confederate States of America). Some have symbolic representations of their Civil War past. But one flag stands out among all of these, because Mississippi wasn't exactly subtle in incorporating the Confederate battle flag into their state's flag design.
No state flag's design is set in stone. They can be changed. They can be changed to remove offensive symbols. Georgia, in fact, did just that a few years back. Here's what Georgia's state flag used to look like:
In 2001, the flag's design was changed, but much like South Carolina, the effort to reach a politically-acceptable compromise wasn't exactly a winner. The new state flag had a row of tiny images of the "historic" state flags of Georgia on it, including the one with the Confederate battle flag element. So the offending image was shrunk considerably, but it still remained on the state flag. Two years later, Georgia adopted another new flag without this imagery present. The state flag changed (twice, in fact), and life went on.
While the debate over South Carolina's display of the Confederate battle flag is an important one -- it has even become a big subject in the presidential race -- it is not the only debate over vexillology we should now be having. Even if South Carolina agrees to move the flag to a museum, it won't affect their citizens' driver's licenses or courthouses. This is not the case in Mississippi.
If South Carolina can agree to remove the Confederate battle flag from their statehouse grounds, then Mississippi should begin their own debate over the inclusion of this offensive Civil War imagery on their own official state flag. Georgia managed to change its state flag as it entered the twenty-first century. Mississippi should follow the path Georgia took and retire their state flag to a museum as well.
Chris Weigant blogs at:
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