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Phillip Tutor: Mississippi did it. Why can’t Alabama?

Mississippi state flag

The state flag of Mississippi flies over the State Capitol in Jackson last week. Lawmakers have since passed a bill to replace the flag. 

The Confederacy surrendered, again, this time in Mississippi.

That’s what it’s always done — through surrender, or defeat, or inevitable decline. The Confederacy’s only lingering victory in modern America was its promulgation of spit-shined Lost Cause narratives about white supremacy and slavery for more than a century.

No more. Vestiges of Confederate misdeeds are disappearing from public spaces across America, in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, Richmond and New Orleans, Mobile and Montgomery. And now, over in Mississippi, that state’s Legislature has done the heretofore impossible: permanently furl a state flag that’s been marred by a Confederate battle emblem since 1894.

Alabama, it’s your turn.

Several states still honor Confederate History Month and Confederate Memorial Day (both in April).

Including Alabama.

Two states have the gall to schedule a state holiday for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s birthday on the same day as Martin Luther King Jr.’s federal holiday. 

Alabama’s one; Mississippi’s the other.

And one state — just one — honors the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis with a state holiday. 

That’s Alabama, too.

One state. Three Confederate-themed state holidays. If only the Alabama Legislature cared as much about the state’s health as it does propping up haggard memories of a racist rebellion. Or, in the case of Gov. Kay Ivey, protecting controversial stone carvings.

It’s not that lawmakers haven’t tried, though. 

Instead of throwing away the Lee holiday, a bill filed last year by state Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, would have moved it away from the King federal holiday to the Confederate Memorial Day in April. Rogers’ bill never saw the light of day.

Before the pandemic struck this spring, state Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, claimed to have bipartisan support on a similar bill that would slide the Lee holiday to October and remove the Confederate stain from the MLK holiday. 

Even U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, the only Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation, has urged Alabama to kick its Davis holiday to the curb.

It won’t, I suspect. There’s too much Alabama in Alabama, especially down on South Union Street in Montgomery. 

But something happened in Mississippi, our sister state. Something revolutionary. Something wholly unexpected. Mississippi saw its future, frowned, and improved it. If only Alabama would pay attention. The impossible isn’t necessarily so.

Mississippi’s flag flap was a simmering issue there for years. Every so often it would flare like an arthritic knee, and then subside. When Georgia changed its flag in 2001, Mississippi became the only state with an official standard tainted by Confederate imagery. Not even the Confederate battle flag overtones of the 2015 massacre at a Black church in Charleston, S.C., spurred Mississippi lawmakers to act.

But for all of 2020’s awfulness — the coronavirus, the political distress, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the unrest that’s followed — America’s reckoning about its addiction to unhealthy public commemorations is perhaps a lone positive.

Mississippi, in essence, caught fire in a perfect storm of activism, historical facts and political wills. No mob tore the flag down. No angry protest caused the Legislature to act. Instead, it was economic pressure (from the NCAA and the Southeastern Conference), celebrity pressure (coaches from Ole Miss and Mississippi State) and lawmakers who coalesced around a singular, focused idea: for Mississippi to move forward, it had to abandon that divisive flag in its past.

 “People’s hearts have changed,” Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn, a Republican and a strong supporter of the change, told The New York Times. “We are better today than we were yesterday, and because we are better, we are stronger.”

Acclaimed songwriter Nina Simone didn’t sing about that banner when she recorded her music about civil rights in 1964 Mississippi, but it’s as if she did. “Oh but this whole country is full of lies/You're all gonna die and die like flies/I don't trust you any more/You keep on saying 'Go slow!'/'Go slow!'”

Mississippi, finally, had enough. It didn’t go slow any longer.

Like its western neighbor, Alabama too often goes slow, a marathon run at a snail’s pace. But perhaps Alabamians’ hearts have changed, too.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

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