Mississippi Wants to “Protect” Its Slaveholding Tradition

Mississippi is the nation’s poorest, fattest, and least-healthy state*, and it’s bottom-two in education and infant mortality. But it wasn’t always so, my friends, it wasn’t always so. In the antebellum South, the city of Natchez was home to half of the millionaires in the United States. The state was one of the richest in the country, and, as time went on, the center of the massive (and massively wealthy) slave economy shifted from Virginia to Mississippi, the cotton explosion of the area enriching the burgeoning planter oligarchy of the Deep South.

*It’s also the most religious.

That the wealth was built through slavery—through legalized torture and bondage—was something the states of the Confederacy recognized and fought successful for decades to defend in the political system. It shouldn’t surprise that they were willing to fight a war to defend the system that made their states the wealthiest in the country and the world,. When Mississippi formally seceded from the Union, it issued a blatantly self-interested and racist declaration of secession, stating:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery— the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.

This is the “heritage” that Mississippi is currently trying to protect, with a ballot petition that, if passed, would amend the state’s constitution to establish “Confederate Heritage Month,” fly the Confederate battle flag at the state capitol, and, among other things, pledge loyalty and fealty to Jesus of Nazareth.

Mississippi Ballot

The continued insistence on defending the Confederate battle flag can be described in no other way than pathetic. The apologist “heritage not hate” argument for the flag’s use is laughable. The flag—a battle flag, remember, not the actual, official flag of the Confederacy, which was an entirely different flag that’s largely been forgotten today—was used by men fighting to defend the right of states to legislate the buying and selling of human beings. What else are we to make of its use today? The usual refrain is that, “The war was about states’ rights, not slavery.” But then the obvious question, “States’ rights to do what?” and the only answer is, “Own slaves.”

The stain of slavery simply cannot be untangled from the Confederate battle flag. With that kind of baggage weighing it down, how else are we supposed to take it when someone chooses to display and wave it? Would we ever believe that somebody flying a Nazi flag would be doing so merely to “honor” German heritage? “This isn’t about hate, I promise! The Nazis weren’t just about killing Jews, you know!” that person could argue. Sure, but what are you really trying to say?

Confederate Flag Shirt

That is why the emphasis on Confederate heritage (including bringing back slave-owning Colonel Reb as the Ole Miss mascot) bothers me so much more than the other nutty items on this ballot (Though the English-only policy bothers me quite a bit.). That even includes the attempt to “officially recognize Mississippi as a predominantly Christian” state. I’ve written before about official state religions, and they actually don’t bother me very much—I’d be fascinated and intrigued to see the various churches fighting over which one gets to become the official Church of America if the country were to ever adopt a state religion. In the case of Mississippi, I think it’ll have about as much impact on the life of most people as the identity of the state bird (It’s a mockingbird!). Besides, states are prohibited by federal law from establishing religions (something North Carolina tried and failed to do last year), so the official religion would last about as long as it takes someone to file a lawsuit.

The persisting influence of Confederate “heritage” troubles me, however, and I hope every progressive person in Mississippi votes against this initiative if indeed it gets enough signatures to trigger a popular referendum. What’s more, I hope the Confederate battle flag one day makes people recoil the way Nazi symbols do.

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