By Katherine Klein, Equality for All Advocacy Coordinator
Published in the Meridian Star
For the second year in a row, Governor Bryant declared April "Confederate Heritage Month." According to this declaration:
WHEREAS, it is important for all Americans to reflect upon our nation's past, to gain insight from our mistakes and successes, and to come to a full understanding that the lessons learned yesterday and today will carry us through tomorrow if we carefully and earnestly strive to understand and appreciate our heritage and our opportunities which lie before us.
Although Bryant has signed declarations such as this before, as have several Mississippi governors before him, he should have done the right thing and departed from this tradition.
Appreciating the diversity of Southern culture is perfectly acceptable. Celebrating Southern ancestry is also welcomed. But to "appreciate our heritage" when the "heritage" of the Confederacy is cut-and-dry unacceptable.
The Confederacy existed during a five-year span of time, from 1861 to 1865, some of the bleakest years in American history. Celebrating Confederate Heritage Month is a slap in the face to modern-day Mississippians, who may rightly not want their Southern roots conflated with an appreciation for the Confederacy.
The Confederacy, and its lasting legacies including the Confederate battle flag still incorporated into the current Mississippi state flag, must be viewed through a modern-day lens. Such historical emblems of the past do not exist in a vacuum but rather are shaped by societal perceptions. Consider the swastika, which was originally an ancient East and Southeast Asian symbol for good fortune. This symbol was appropriated by the Nazis and is now associated with the Nazi party and the Holocaust. It would be absurd to argue that reasonably minded modern-day Americans see the swastika as anything other than a symbol of Nazi hate, losing its symbolic meaning of peace.
It is important to be clear about what the Confederacy was, and was not. The Confederacy was not a shining Camelot of righteousness that has somehow been misconstrued by history. The Confederacy was a coalition of Southern states that did not want the status quo to change; that did not want Black people in the South to be free. Those who would argue that the Confederacy was by and large about states' rights have their argument undone by the second sentence of Mississippi's Declaration of Secession, which reads:
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery - the greatest material interest of the world.
Today, the Confederacy is properly understood as an institution that fought for the right to continue the degradation of human beings. In the 150 years following the end of the Confederacy, the Confederate flag has been appropriated by White supremacists, perpetuating it as a symbol of hate.
I am not arguing that we ignore the history of the Confederacy or the Civil War. Quite the opposite. That the Confederacy sought to maintain the institution of slavery should be well-taught in Mississippi classrooms and acknowledged in Southern society in general, as should the decades of racial violence and oppression that have followed. If we are to tell the story, we should tell the complete story of 'our' history.
We should, as Governor Bryant's proclamation declares in part, seek to gain insight from the mistakes of our ancestors. However, it is simply morally wrong to glorify a heritage that would not have recognized 38% of Mississippi's current population as human beings. If we want to move forward, the Confederate heritage needs to be acknowledged for what it was: a time in Southern history that no longer represents what modern-day Mississippi stands for.