“Don’t burn the flag, wash it” – A statement bigger than just symbolism

On Tuesday the 3rd of November, Mississippians voted overwhelmingly to remove the confederate imagery in the state’s flag. Whilst for many, Confederate symbols represent a sense of southern pride, for others the imagery’s racist connotations completely outweighs the benefits of tradition. The new flag features the state’s flower, a magnolia, encircled by the words “in God we trust ” and flanked on either side with columns of ochre yellow and red. 

But what importance do flags hold in this day and age? In a country where racism affects minorities in a palpable manner on a daily basis, how much weight should really be placed on what can at best be viewed as a symbolic gesture? My proposition is this – even if the change remains purely symbolic, it would be naive to undervalue the importance of symbolism in such a visual age. The new flag has the true power and potential to unite and enfranchise a particularly powerful and undervalued portion of the American electorate. 

But first for the purely symbolic matters. Whichever end of the political spectrum you land on, chances are they appreciate the cultural importance flags hold. From Republican John Dune’s belief that “our flag is more than just cloth and ink” to artist David Hammons’ African American Flag textile piece, the power of American flags is difficult to overstate. The act of flying the flag upside down immediately indicates what might be best described as a complete and utter disillusionment with the American dream. The fact that such a simple inversion can cause so much outrage aptly displays the American flag’s near sacrilegious status. In an increasingly secularised and politically divided world, the symbols we choose to reflect and unite our communities can be argued to hold increasing importance. Mississippians’ deserve a flag that they can unite behind as a state, not one whose racist undertones immediately ostracize large swathes of the state’s population. 

Credit: USA Today

The new flag’s power will be truly understood if it can help catalyse further change in what, by at least one metric, is the hardest American state to vote in. Despite Mississippi having the largest black population of any state and strong black voter registration and turn out (81% and 69% respectively), not a single black individual has been voted to state-wide office for the past 130 years. The Election Law Journal concluded in 2018 that Mississippi’s high time and labour costs of voting leads to lower turnouts from the state’s poorer communities. This in turn disproportionally affects black voters, nearly ⅓ of whom live below the poverty line. Restrictions on absentee voting and a ban on early voting also means that those from lower income backgrounds may also not be financially able to take the time off to vote. 

Regardless of where one sits on the issue of felon voting, it is clear that Mississippi’s restrictions disproportionately affect the state’s black community. Current felony voting restrictions mean that a staggering 16% of blacks are unable to vote. Furthermore, conviction of one of twenty-two crimes in the state means your voting rights are permanently revoked, which arguably leads to a deep sense of apathy and disengagement. Considering Mississippi’s large, mostly black prison population alongside the state’s troubling history of deliberately attempting to suppress black voter turnout, it is hard not to see the two issues as potentially interlinked.

None of these issues will be fixed overnight by the changing of a flag. However, I think Norman Thomas was onto something when he suggested that “If you want a symbolic gesture, don’t burn the flag, wash it”. Mississippi has democratically cleansed their flag of its racist overtones, affording the state an opportunity to move forward under a more unifying symbol. A change which has been campaigned for for years has finally manifested itself as a result of popular vote, a true testament to the power the Mississippian electorate holds in their hands.

Credit: Wikipedia