By Beth Ann Fennelly
Poet Laureate of Mississippi
For the New York Times
I’m a proud Mississippian, and our state’s poet laureate, but I don’t fly the state flag. Neither do my friends and neighbors, white or black (I’m white). The reason is simple: Mississippi, which has the country’s highest percentage of black residents, is the last state in the nation to have a flag that incorporates the Confederate symbol.
Few businesses or institutions, beyond the Capitol building, fly the state flag. The University of Mississippi, where I teach literature, took it down in 2015, after the Charleston church shooting. The Mississippi Business Journal pointed out that the flag also “negatively impacts outside investment.”
But the flag’s removal has only recently become a battle cry for Mississippians. In April, Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, triggered anger and incredulity by declaring “Confederate Heritage Month.” After the death of George Floyd, the hashtag #TakeItDown has been trending on social media. A petition created five years ago to “remove the Confederate emblem from the Mississippi state flag” has begun recirculating, approaching its goal of 200,000 signatures by Sunday, Flag Day. Last Monday, bipartisan Mississippi lawmakers conducted a closed-door conversation to draft legislation to change the flag.
The momentum shows no sign of, well, flagging. And protests from black athletes will yield results — our leaders listen to football players more readily than literature professors. On May 29, Kenny Yeboah, a tight end recruit at the University of Mississippi, tweeted, “It’s crazy that as an African-American student-athlete I play for a team in a state that still has the Confederate flag incorporated into their flag.”
To read the rest of this op-ed, please visit the New York Times’ website.