Celebrate Treason and Slavery Month!

The powers that be in Mississippi can’t seem to resist making the place a national punch line. A state that ranks dead last in every marker of material and cultural progress also persists in fetishizing the worst moments of its history. In February Governor Phil Bryant declared April Confederate Heritage Month. Oddly the proclamation wasn’t published on the state government’s website. It appeared on the website of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization dedicated to whitewashing (pun intended) the history of the Confederacy. Of course the proclamation makes no mention of slavery; it merely states that it is important “for all Americans to reflect upon our nation’s past, and to gain insights from our mistakes and successes” — which those who celebrate Confederate Heritage Month have no intention of doing. A writer for The Jackson Free Press, a progressive paper based in the state capital, pointed out the proclamation appeared a mere two weeks after the state legislature allowed 19 bills to remove the stars and bars from the state flag to die in committee.

I’ll say this for the governor and legislature: in an age of unprecedented government secrecy, they’re paragons of transparency. Their priorities are clear. They’ll pass work requirements that all but guarantee 50,000 citizens of the state will lose their food stamps; they’ll turn down money from the Federal government to provide health insurance for the destitute; but they’ll happily dedicate a month to the memory of men who fought to defend slavery; and spend over $4 million to help build the misleadingly named Jefferson Davis Presidential Library and Museum. All this, mind you, in a state where 40% of the population is black.

Instead of “Birthplace of America’s Music,” the welcome signs at the state’s borders should read, “Where You Only Matter if You’re Dead (and White).”

Fortunately, there are signs of a change in attitude, however glacially the pace of that change may be. A Guardian article on protests against Confederate Heritage Month at the state capitol building noted the presence of white as well as black protestors. And last fall the student senate at the University of Mississippi voted to remove the state flag — which has the Confederate battle flag in its upper left corner — from campus.

The University of Mississippi — where the admission of the first African-American student in 1962 was attended by violence resulting in the deaths of two and the injuries of 300 — has led the way in removing reminders of the Confederacy. In 1997 University Chancellor Robert Khayat banned spectators from waving the Confederate at sporting events. In 2010 the University’s longtime mascot, Colonel Reb, was replaced with a bear. In 2014 the campus’ Confederate was renamed Chapel Lane. All of the changes were met with protests. Chancellor Khayat received death threats from as far away as Montana. The 2014 street name change provoked a protest march of people regurgitating the usual bilge that Mississippi’s history has more to do with state’s rights than slavery, which only makes sense if you are in denial that the rights Mississippi and the other Southern states so belligerently defended were the rights to own slaves and later to keep the descendants of those slaves uneducated and disenfranchised.

And yet it’s difficult to consider university administrators heroes for these long-overdue changes. I’m sure some of them are motivated by a genuine desire to rid the campus of Confederate names and symbols because they make African-Americans feel like second-class citizens. But the initial Confederate flag ban sprang from a thoroughly misguided and peculiarly American notion about the purpose of a university. As former Chancellor Khayat admitted in his memoir The Education of a Lifetime, a key reason for getting rid of the Confederate flag was that it made it harder for the university to recruit good football players. Priorities.

Molly Ivins would have had a field day with these people.