Mississippi historian Otis W. Pickett calls on the state to let Confederate emblem on Mississippi flag go

Historians in the News
tags: Mississippi, Confederate flag, Otis W Pickett



Otis W. Pickett teaches history at Mississippi College. He can be reached at owpickett@mc.edu. 

... If there is anyone in Mississippi who can claim a Confederate heritage and a reason to celebrate it for a month, it’s me. I grew up on Sullivan’s Island in Charleston Harbor, just a few hundred yards away from where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. I grew up inundated with stories of direct descendants on both sides of my family who served in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. While my branch of the Pickett family moved from Virginia to South Carolina in the 18th century, we are distantly related to the Virginian Gen. George E. Pickett, who led Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, which is considered the “high-water mark” of the Confederate Army. I now teach Civil War and Reconstruction to undergraduates, and along with class lectures, examining primary documents, class discussions and viewing some sections of Civil War documentaries, I believe it is important to take students out of the classroom to “see and feel” the history and to make it “come alive” to them through field trips to Vicksburg and other Civil War sites. Together we walk the battlefield each May, just a few weeks before the anniversary of the fall of Vicksburg in July of 1863. This is how my professors taught me, and this is where I fell in love with history.

Just as the apostle Paul once delighted in being a “Pharisee of Pharisees,” along with his ethnic heritage and his education, I too delighted in my heritage, was proud of it and boasted about it. Like Paul, I had a Damascus road experience with the centrality of my heritage, ancestry and education to my identity. This was through the Gospel of Christ doing a changing work in me, through the study of history, and through the love and friendship of African-American brothers and sisters. Christ had become my identity and, like Paul, I began to feel, “far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

Christ and his Gospel were made known to me through the work of the Holy Spirit in an African-American Baptist minister in Charleston, South Carolina, named the Rev. Herman Robinson. Herman discipled me in Christ, he preached to me and he was my pastor. We were friends. I ate in his home. He ate at ours. He and I loved each other and still do. He grieved with me when my grandfather passed away. When I was in college, Herman would drive up once a year to visit me, pray over my room and take me to lunch. I will never forget the day he came into my room and saw the first national flag of the Confederacy hanging on my wall next to a picture of Gen. Pickett. I remember looking at Herman’s face and seeing a contorted combination of sadness and disbelief. His eyes were watery — yet he didn’t say anything. This was the day I learned that not all people view emblems of the Confederacy in the same way I did.

I had deeply hurt my best friend. At my wedding, Herman was gracious enough to attend, and he presented me with a picture of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy kneeling in prayer on the streets in Birmingham. The underlying message was, “Let images like this decorate your new home.”  I called him the day of the shooting at Emmanuel AME Church by a young, white South Carolinian who had become infatuated with everything the Confederate flag had come to resemble. We wept together.

I began to learn in history classes, and through reading the primary documents of Southerners themselves, that the Confederate cause was strongly affiliated with preserving the institution of slavery. This is an institution that would have kept Herman and his family enslaved. Under this institution they would not be viewed as human beings, but as property. The Confederate war effort was ultimately tied to preserving a Southern way of life rooted in an agrarian economy that depended on slave labor. L.Q.C. Lamar, the only Mississippian to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, who authored the ordinance of secession in 1861, put it this way: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.” This was a statement firmly connecting Mississippi’s secession with slavery, along with stating the belief that the African was inferior “by nature” to the white man.

After the Civil War, the Confederate battle flag took on new meanings on the Southern landscape. It became thoroughly identified with a movement known as the Lost Cause, which sought to memorialize and preserve a collective Southern memory celebrating the Confederacy. However, as African-Americans were entering into civic spaces, running for office and voting in large numbers during Reconstruction and into the 1880s, they began to represent to Southern whites many of the great changes affecting the Southern landscape — chief among them a threat to Southern white political power. The Confederate flag began to be used publicly as a symbol that represented a return to “white rule.” Further, the Mississippi Constitution of 1890 became a legal tool to help whites regain political control through massive disenfranchisement of African-Americans. Through literacy clauses, poll taxes and interpretation clauses, African-Americans were almost entirely removed from the voting process in Mississippi until the mid-1960s. In the midst of this, attacks on African-Americans in the form of lynchings and violent intimidation attempted to keep African-Americans from political activity or challenging a new system of white control. ...

There is no value in celebrating an image that so deeply hurts my African-American brothers and sisters. I am gladly willing to lay it down so that we can be reconciled to one another in Christ. I also believe that if any of my Confederate ancestors are in heaven, they would want this too. If they are lying prostrate before the throne and before the Lamb of God, I do not think they are concerned that I celebrate their Confederate service. I think they are more concerned that I use every breath I have on earth to love Christ, to love my neighbor and to reconcile God’s people to himself and to each other. Mississippi can be a beacon to the rest of the world that love, selflessness, repentance and reconciliation can reign. The new “Mississippi Plan” can be one of unity, love, compassion and building one another up in the midst of a beloved community.

I beg you, my fellow Mississippians. Please learn from our example in South Carolina. It took the senseless deaths of nine African-American Christians in my home state to force the state Legislature to vote to take down the Confederate flag. Don’t let it take a senseless act of violence in Mississippi to force the Legislature’s hand to remove this symbol. Do this of your own free will, and prove to the rest of the world that Christian love, charity, grace and mercy reign supreme here in Mississippi.

I ask you to listen to African-American brothers and sisters, take them to lunch and honestly try to feel and understand their frustration on this issue. For many African-Americans, every time they see that flag it makes them feel like “second-class citizens” — that they live in a state that doesn’t want them and would rather go back to a time when they were enslaved and whites dominated completely. I ask you to envision the tears of my former pastor Herman and the mourning families in Charleston who lost a pastor and loved ones.

Please have empathy. It is time to bring it down. It is time to let it go.






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