January 25, 2021 9:33:42 AM
The year 2020 was one in which Americans dealt with big problems. The most obvious was the coronavirus pandemic, which surged into 2021 despite the arrival of a vaccine.
But if 2020 was full of problems, it also was a year that encouraged some solutions. One was the approval of a new Mississippi flag, which made its formal debut above the state Capitol earlier this week.
The debate over the former flag had been going on for years. The flag's homage to the Confederacy -- and its association with segregationists and white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan -- begged the question of whether it was wise to have a banner that divided people instead of uniting them.
In 2001, Mississippians voted 2-to-1 to keep the old flag. Nothing appeared to be significantly different about public opinion until last spring, when the deaths of Black people at the hands of white police officers sparked nationwide protests.
Suddenly, the Legislature voted to retire the state flag and set up a mechanism to choose a new one. More surprisingly, Gov. Tate Reeves, who had said for years that he opposed changing flags unless voters agreed, signed the bill. And most shocking of all, 71% of voters in the November election approved the proposed new flag.
Reeves said all the right things a few days ago when he signed another bill formalizing the approval of the flag that voters had approved.
He admitted that the old banner, with its Confederate battle flag, had been "a prominent roadblock to unity." And he added, "When many looked at our former flag, they just saw a symbol of the state and heritage they love. But many felt dismissed, diminished and even hated because of that flag. That is not a firm foundation for our state. So today, we turn the page."
The objections of Mississippians who resent the shift away from their heritage is understandable. But if 2020 taught us anything at all, it's that this state and the country have more important things to focus on than a flag.
We are still at the mercy of a virus that has killed far too many people. There is no return to normalcy until this affliction is tamed.
We remain divided and unwilling to listen to other opinions. We swallow wild conspiracy theories about the other side that any dispassionate observer would think are the delusions of a paranoid schizophrenic.
In Mississippi specifically, the economy is falling further behind the rest of the nation. Our population is not growing. As much as those of us who live in Mississippi like it, the rest of the country fails to see the state's potential. This goes double for the small towns that dot the state. As Americans flock to larger cities, small communities rightly worry about what their future holds.
Monday's flag-raising ceremony, though, was the culmination of a positive movement that can only improve this state's image outside its borders while fostering greater unity within them.
It was, as the governor said, a small step but an important one.
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