On Tuesday, June 30, 2020 I sat on The Balcony of the upstairs bar of the City Grocery restaurant on The Square in Oxford, Mississippi. Looking across the way at the Lafayette County Courthouse, I smiled―not because of anything I saw, but because of what I didn’t see. The Mississippi state flag, the last official state flag in America bearing the Confederate stars and bars, was nowhere to be seen. That evening, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves signed legislation that removed the flag that had flown over the state for 126 years.
The removal of the flag came under mounting pressure from Mississippians and national industry that threatened to no longer do business with or in Mississippi while the 1894 flag still waved over the state. When the Holy Trinity of the South―NASCAR, the SEC, and, finally, the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board―all came out publicly in favor of changing the banner, it was, for all accounts and purposes, a done deal.
In November Mississippians will vote on a new official flag. In a compromise with the state’s conservative leaders, the legislation requires that any new flag contain the National and State Motto “In God We Trust” on it. Rumors of a referendum to include the old state flag in that selection process have already begun to rise. I told my bartender that day of my happiness at the removal of the state flag and my disappointment with the motto requirement. He agreed, then said, “In Mississippi it’s usually one step forward, two steps back. Maybe this time it’ll be two steps forward, one step back.”
Even with its significant negative history of racial injustice, Oxford is one of a few moderate-to-liberal “bubbles” in Mississippi. A bastion of Southern culture, Oxford was home to Nobel Laureate William Faulkner. Dozens of published authors, including best-selling writers, live there. The local music scene rivals that of cities twice its size. The Oxford Film Festival regularly draws filmmakers from around the globe. MovieMaker Magazine ranked it as one of the Top 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee of 2020.¹
Oxford is also home to the University of Mississippi―Ole Miss. (“Ole Miss” was a term often used by slaves for the wife of a plantation owner.) In 1962 the enrollment of the first black student, James Meredith, led to a major riot that resulted in the National Guard being activated under pressure from then President John F. Kennedy and his brother, U.S. Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy. The riot left two dead and three hundred injured. Now, according to College Factual®, the University’s racial makeup includes an African American student population of 12.9% and faculty population of 29.5%. These statistics place the University just below the national average for diversity in colleges and universities.²
With the flag removed, the attention is now more intently focused on the removal of two Confederate statues. The one on the University campus near the tailgating mecca, The Grove, is officially slated to be moved to a cemetery elsewhere on campus where a significant number of Confederate student-soldiers known as the “University Grays” were laid to rest, most after the Battle of Shiloh.
The second statue stands on the south side of the Lafayette County Courthouse and is now the focal point of demonstrations and marches on most days of the week. Many want the statue moved to the same Confederate cemetery as the other one. Some just want it gone. Yet others, also exercising their right to free speech, want the statue to remain where it is. So far the demonstrations have been peaceful, with the exception of verbal attacks from some on both sides of the dispute. On any given day those with signs reading “Take It Down!” far outnumber those waving Confederate flags.
In a surprise move on July 6 of this year the all white, all male Lafayette County Board of Supervisors voted in lock step to keep the statue on The Square. Opponents are now discussing a possible boycott of these men’s businesses.
Members of downtown Oxford’s extremely close, multiracial family of restaurant, bar, and retail workers have been a driving force in the efforts to remove both the state flag and the Confederate statues. Early on they secured permits that have allowed daily, mostly silent, protests across from the Courthouse. On any given day they will stand on the side of Lamar Avenue with their signs as some passersby cheer and others jeer.
It’s unlikely that anyone needs reminding of the dark past of racial injustice in Mississippi. The torture and lynching of Emmett Till in 1955; the murder of Freedom Riders James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in 1961; and the assassination in 1963 of the NAACP’s Mississippi Field Secretary, Medgar Evers loom large even today. The Abel Meeropol song Strange Fruit, most famously recorded by Billie Holliday, and Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddamn are musical chronicles of the state’s bigotry. Films such as Mississippi Burning and Ghosts of Mississippi have cast the long shadow of racial prejudice across the silver screen.
Mississippi has come a long way in the last fifty years. That is evident in many realms. But Mississippians have precious few racial equality laurels on which to sit, and the current fight to remove Confederate statues―which has been done in several municipalities―is all the evidence one needs to prove that Mississippi still has a long, long way to go. But, still, there are many willing to stand and demand change.
The battle for equality for all is an ongoing struggle. Every step towards justice is a good step. All of us in that crusade need each other’s support―the bolstering from like-minded people who, when they see a wrong, strive to make it right. Together we can. Even in Mississippi? Time will tell.
¹https://www.moviemaker.com/50-film-festivals-worth-the-entry-fee-in-2020-presented-by-filmfreeway/7/. MovieMaker Magazine, April, 2020.
²https://www.collegefactual.com/colleges/university-of-mississippi-main-campus/student-life/diversity/#secEthnic. College Factual ® is a registered trademark of Media Factual.