I am a proud, sixth-generation, born-and-raised Mississippian. I’ve traveled around the world singing songs, and though I hang my hat in Tennessee, I tell people I’m from Mississippi. And for all the pride I feel as a Mississippian, I also feel a twinge of anxiety when the word Mississippi leaves my lips.
For as far back as I can tell, there have been two Mississippis.
The Mississippi I know and love sounds like Charley Pride’s voice, Marty Stuart’s Telecaster, and B.B. King’s Lucille. It tastes like gravity-defying meringue and cathead biscuits. It intoxicates you with the hospitality and style of Willie Seaberry on a hot, Merigold juke joint Thursday night.
My Mississippi sends a tingle up your spine at the sight of broken chains over a witch’s grave in Yazoo, then sends you rolling onto the floor with laughter at a young boy named Willie’s fox terrier driving a car around the town square. My Mississippi is the quiet determination of a three-year-old girl in a potato sack dress named Oprah who, by-God was going to learn how to read and by-God would someday change the world.
My Mississippi possesses the brilliant, creative spirits of Jesmyn Ward, Donna Tartt, and Eudora Welty. It sings of the ghosts of Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and Howlin’ Wolf. It exhibits the courage of Medgar Evers, Vernon Dahmer, James E. Chaney, Marian Wright Edelman, James Meredith, the Reverend Will D. Campbell, and countless others who pioneered the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
But there is another Mississippi. And there’s no way around it. Mississippi’s complicated story must include the dark chapters of Byron De La Beckwith, Edgar Ray Killen, and the Ku Klux Klan. It must not leave out the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. Mississippi cannot erase the tragedy of Emmett Till, nor can it gloss over slavery, Black Codes, Convict Leasing, and Jim Crow.
For far too long, Mississippi’s state flag, particularly the top left-hand corner of Mississippi’s state flag, has recognized one Mississippi without representing the other. And the deep wounds of our past will never heal unless we first clean the wound. Myrlie Evers said so much herself. And she would know.
But today, my heart is full of hope. Very soon, we will have a new banner to represent ALL Mississippians. And I am deeply grateful for each and every person who helped to make it happen.
Yes, we are soon to fly a new Mississippi flag. And this is a great milestone. We shall celebrate, Delta style. I’m talkin’ whooping and hollering and foot stomping till the cows come home.
But we must also, in the words of that great Mississippian Pops Staples, keep on marching up Freedom Highway. Because the work is not yet finished.
I made up my mind. And I won’t turn around. For this is the moment, and the clock is ticking.
One Mississippi… Two Mississippi…