What a great gift for America's birthday: The Confederate States of America officially, finally fell this week. Lawmakers in Mississippi on Sunday voted to scuttle their state flag because it sports a Confederate emblem — the last state flag in America to include that symbol of bondage and treason. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves signed the bill Tuesday, making it official. Along with modern rejection of other Confederate symbolism, it signals that America is at long last ready to quit honoring an enemy that has no more deserved to be honored than would colonial England, Nazi Germany or Cold War Russia.
Less than 20 years ago, Mississippians voted 2 to 1 to keep their state flag, which incorporates the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. Last week, a poll showed 55% of the state now supports changing it. Such is the dizzying speed with which America's racial awakening has reached even the furthest corners of Dixie.
Reasonable people can disagree upon whether symbols venerating, say, George Washington should be expelled from modern society. America's first president personally enslaved hundreds of human beings, after all. But he also played a key role in founding the nation, and that's clearly the point of the statues to him. Washington is honored in spite of the parts of his life that failed to embody the best of America, not because of those failings.
Not so with Confederate symbols. Gen. Robert E. Lee isn't remembered in history primarily as a college president who just happened to have also commanded the killing of hundreds of thousands of his fellow Americans in an effort to keep millions more in chains. History remembers Lee specifically because of his violent defense of slavery and treason, not in spite of it. That's the difference. That's why, while officially honoring Washington is rationally debatable today, honoring Lee really isn't.
Ditto for the flag he waved. The Mississippi flag now being recast was, like so many Confederate statues and symbols, created long after the Civil War era (1894, in this case). Its primary purpose wasn't to honor Confederate soldiers — who were by then largely deceased, their cause long lost — but to send a clear signal to African Americans of the time that, slavery's abolition notwithstanding, they were still second-class citizens facing systemic subjugation and violence.
Now Mississippi's flag joins other relics that Americans have finally recognized as irrevocably tainted: the Lee statue in Richmond, Virginia; the Confederate flags in the stands at NASCAR events; perhaps, eventually, the names of traitors that adorn some U.S. military installations.
America on Saturday celebrates the founding of a nation that has never fully lived up to its own stated ideals, but which is getting closer to them all the time. Finally recognizing the Confederacy for what it was — an enemy of America, and an enemy of freedom — is a big step.
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