The Mississippi Legislature moved with impressive speed this past weekend to change the state flag. But the hard part — the work to bring more unity to the state and especially finding ways to significantly improve the economy and quality of life — is going to take years and possibly decades.
The change of heart among significant numbers of white Republicans made the difference this weekend. It was a shift that was difficult to forecast even a few days ago, when support for a new flag from influential business groups and other organizations like the Mississippi Baptist Convention and the Southeastern Conference made it clear that things had suddenly become different.
Gov. Tate Reeves is among the converts. He said for years that the flag only should be changed by voters in a statewide referendum. But Saturday he said the debate had become too divisive and it was time to end it. He is expected to sign the bill that passed Sunday.
The bill sets up a nine-member commission, whose task will be to come up with a flag design by September. It will then be put to a referendum on the November ballot. The only requirements for the new design are that it include the phrase “In God We Trust” and that it includes no Confederate insignia. If the voters reject it, the process restarts.
This has produced a feel-good moment for Mississippi. The state is getting national attention and, for once, praise for its decision.
Meanwhile, there are a number of residents who oppose what the Legislature has done. This would be a good time to remind supporters of the current flag that, even though they object to the decision it will not be illegal to fly the state flag or the Rebel flag on private property. That’s a freedom-of-speech issue.
Confederate monuments may be relocated, but there is no way to erase the state’s Civil War history. Nor should anyone want to. It’s simply that the argument for change won out because it became clear that keeping the current flag would not help Mississippi in the 21st century.
The state flag and its Confederate battle emblem is a symbol. It’s easy to change a flag or to rename a street. But now comes the hard stuff, the work to find substance that can truly make a difference in America’s 50th-ranked state.
Legislators showed a surprising degree of bipartisanship on the flag, meaning in this case that a lot of Republicans changed their minds. It would be a fairy tale to expect the two parties to agree on big topics regularly, as politics is defined by the struggle of competing ideas.
However, many of the lawmakers who spoke during the consideration of this bill said they felt it was time to bring the people of the state together. The flag is a start.
Mississippi may have the most unlocked potential of any state in America. It’s in the fastest-growing region of the most prosperous nation in the history of the world, yet it’s growth has lagged. Why? The simplest and best answer is that it has been unable to move past its racial problems that hinder education, economic growth and social improvements. Fixing those things is possible, but it’s going to take a greater emphasis on education, job training and job creation, for starters, along with the courage to try new things and the willingness to be optimistic about the future.