The Confederate battle flag is back in the news, this time down in Mississippi. Mississippi is the only southern state that incorporates the Confederate symbol into its own state flag, and on Monday the interim chancellor of the University of Mississippi, Morris Stocks, ordered that the state flag no longer be flown over campus. Stocks’ order came after the school’s student and faculty senates both passed resolutions calling for the state flag to come down.
Though I applaud the step, I winced to read the chancellor’s justification of his action. Opting for diplomacy over candor, Stocks noted that the Confederate battle flag simply means different things to different individuals. “The flag represents tradition and honor to some,” he observed. “But to others, the flag means that some members of the Ole Miss family are not welcomed or valued.”
In sum, without any reference to the flag’s history, Stocks defended his decision on the grounds that some Ole Miss students, for unspecified personal reasons, found the flag offensive. I fully understand why he would want to tread lightly. Stocks is a newcomer to his post, he holds the position on an interim basis, and he has has every reason to suspect that popular support for the current version of the state flag is widespread across his state. (More than two thirds of Mississippians opposed changing the flag in a state referendum in 2001.)
But in justifying the act as he did, Stocks gave critics of the decision no reason to view it as other than a surrender to political correctness. That is exactly how Mississippi state Senator Chris McDaniel framed the new policy in a scathing statement. “Universities are supposed to be marketplaces of ideas, not cocoons designed for coddling the feelings of the perpetually offended,” McDaniel proclaimed on his official Facebook page.
The McDaniels of the world are impervious to evidence, but Stocks’ statement would have been so much more effective if he had forthrightly challenged his fellow Mississippians to confront their past honestly. Defenders of the flag portray its critics as hypersensitive malcontents looking for ways to tarnish a noble heritage. Rather than weakly acknowledging that flying the flag caused certain unidentified Ole Miss students to feel less “valued,” Stocks could have argued that history gives black Mississippians every logical reason to see the flag as an unalloyed symbol of racism. The University of Mississippi’s decision to furl the flag isn’t political correctness run amok. It’s a responsible acknowledgment of the past as a step toward a brighter future.