Leading Across Differences: The Mississippi Flag

“Every individual deserves respect and dignity. Individually and collectively, people have the capacity, the power, the right and responsibility to effect social change.”

~ Medgar Wiley Evers

The A New Flag for Mississippi team.
The 19 members of the WKKF Community Leadership Network Mississippi cohort met in the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) headquarters, where civil rights organizations came together in the 1960s to strategize and organize. Photo courtesy of A New Flag for Mississippi.

For 126 years, the intentional symbol of white supremacy known as the Confederate Battle flag loomed over the people of Mississippi, emblazoned prominently upon the state flag. Generations of activists have fought for its removal. Finally, in July 2020, a perfect storm of global outrage and community strength came together, resulting in the passing of historic legislation calling for the flag to be removed and a new design to be created.

WKKF Community Leadership Network fellows with the Mississippi cohort — Dr. Bryon D’Andra Orey, Patrick Weems, Zakiya Summers and Reena Evers-Everette — remember the work of those who came before and reflect on the strategies that led to this change finally happening.

Recognizing the flag’s traumatic impacts

“Changing the flag has been my life’s work,” shared Dr. Bryon D’Andra Orey, professor of political science at Jackson State University. Following the defeat of the 2001 public referendum on the flag, he left the state for seven years “to escape the trauma and pain I feel from the flag’s oppression.”

Upon returning to Mississippi, Dr. Orey continued his research, compiling evidence of the negative psychological and physiological impacts of the flag’s Confederate symbol on Black people’s well-being for generations.

The fight to change the flag is inseparably bound with the state’s storied legacy in the fight for civil rights. Dr. Orey is conscientious in paying homage to Mississippi civil rights leaders who laid the foundation for the flag’s removal. From Medgar Wiley Evers to Fannie Lou Hamer to local NAACP members Mrs. Delores Orey and Mrs. Ineva May-Pittman, these leaders “were instrumental in spurring activism and inspiring those who continued the fight for justice.”

The power of community

After years of fighting, Dr. Orey was skeptical when Patrick Weems, executive director of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, suggested they make a new state flag as the group project of the Mississippi cohort.

Everything changed with the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, on the heels of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Their tragic deaths sparked international outrage, and magnified the issue of the Mississippi flag as a blatant symbol of institutional white supremacy.

Apathy was no longer an option, and pressure from corporations, college athletes and athletic associations, churches and young people began to swell. Maisie Brown, along with other youth, mobilized the biggest protest rally in Mississippi since the civil rights movement.

Amidst the uprising, the 19 members of WKKF Community Leadership Network Mississippi cohort quickly organized as “A New Flag for Mississippi” to put out a statement advocating for the flag’s removal and calling for its replacement with a flag of which all Mississippians can be proud. “Mississippi has the ability to make a bold statement for human dignity and, in doing so, give hope to young Mississippians that there is a future here.”

Weems said the cohort wanted to make sure every step was made with intention, “There was a sense of, ‘If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right.’ That new flag must have radical Black love at its center, because that’s what Mississippi really is home to, radical Black love.”

Working with people across the aisle

Zakiya Summers assumed her place as a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives in January 2020. With only a few months under her belt, she was able to bring fresh perspective to a bipartisan committee championing the flag’s removal. “We got together in a small room, set out on a mission,” shared Summers. “We had direction, alignment and commitment — it was a true example of effective leadership.”

Despite the groundswell of public support, it was a lot of work to move the legislature. “Every day, I was having conversations with conservative colleagues who kept talking about the heritage argument and how the flag was an important part of history.”

“I was reminded of a message from a book, ‘The Obstacle Is The Way,’ of which the gist is, ‘We don’t always have control when things get hard, but we can control how we respond.’” Summers changed her perspective and used her platform “to educate and inform and sometimes correct. I shared with my colleagues what the Confederate flag portrays is terror and hatred and white supremacy.”

Eventually they listened, and after unprecedentedly rapid legislative proceedings, the old Mississippi flag was finally retired on June 30, 2020.

Carrying forward our ancestors’ fight for civil rights

“This was a hard and heart move for all of us,” said Reena Evers-Everette, executive director of the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute.

Evers-Everette noted the significance of where the fellows gathered for their group project, “The picture of us is at the COFO, the Council of Federated Organizations. We were building on hallowed ground, where SNIC, CORE, SCLC and NAACP formulated to do the exact same thing we were aiming to do now.”

Reflecting on the magnitude of this long awaited change, Evers Everette echoed the words of her father Medgar Wiley Evers, “Every individual deserves respect and dignity. Individually and collectively, people have the capacity, the power, the right and responsibility to effect social change.”

Evers-Everette attended the governor’s signing of the legislation, and said she felt “a lifting of a power that has tried to suppress and oppress us for hundreds of years.” In closing, she quoted her mother Myrlie Evers, “Medgar’s wings must be clapping.”

Strategies for leading across differences

Mississippi is a powerful testimony of how to keep going forward, knowing it may take generations. Every step in this long fight required a desire and willingness to work across diverse cultures, politics and backgrounds, and trusting in a future change of heart to come.

Theirs and their ancestors’ efforts exemplify three strategies to create direction, alignment and commitment across differences in service of a higher vision:

  • Managing differences. Tap into the power of differentiation by recognizing what each person or group brings. Establish a safe space where different ideas and perspectives can be stated and discussed. Create opportunities for people and organizations to share their stories and histories. Listen to understand and respect people’s different journeys.
  • Forging common ground. Tap into the power of connection and integration. Take time to build trust and build relationships. Find ways to come together around shared values and purpose. Foster a community of those passionate about the change you are championing.
  • Discovering new opportunities. Tap into the power of innovation. Listen to the needs and concerns of others, and look for the intersection of interests. Weave together people’s experiences and expertise to create new opportunities. Be ready to mobilize folks when it is time to take action.

Want more?

Watch “The Future of Mississippi” for more on the fellows’ leadership journeys and what they’re learning to advance racial justice in their state.

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WKKF Community Leadership Network