In a rejection of white supremacy, Mississippi will fly a new flag that is free of the Confederate emblem. According to the German Flag Society, such a radical altering of an entrenched US state symbol is rare.
The Confederate flag became the symbol of the pro-slavery South when it was created during the American Civil War. 100 years later, it was wielded as a mark of white supremacy, including by the Klu Klux Klan, during the struggle to end segregation in the 1950s and 60s. But while the flag has gradually been banned in most southern US states, it remained embedded on the Mississippi flag until June 28, when the state legislature voted unanimously to remove it.
As the police killing of an unarmed African-American man, George Floyd, has reenergized the fight for civil rights in the US under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement, the decision to change the Mississippi flag follows the ongoing removal of Confederate monuments and memorials.
But how easy is it to change such an enduring symbol of state, whatever its egregious historical associations? DW spoke to Jörg Majewski, a member of the board of the German Flag Society, to find out more.
DW: The US state of Mississippi has decided to remove the Confederate symbol from its flag, a symbol of slavery in the South and white supremacy. Is such a change common?
Jörg Majewski: It depends. Some countries have had the same flag for centuries, regardless of their political orientation. The Danish flag design is over 800 years old. In other countries, the flag often changes with a new head of government, for example, in Afghanistan.
Is the measure in Mississippi unusual for Western countries?
Yes, this change is very unusual, especially in the US states. Texas had different flags after independence from Mexico. The Mississippi flag has existed for 120 years. The procedure for the change is particularly unusual: Normally, there are calls for tenders, drafts for the new flag and then the resolutions of the Senate. Here, it's the other way around.
What criteria should the new flag meet?
It should be designed in such a way that all citizens of this state can identify with it. It should be simple and have clear colors. I assume that the colors red, white and blue will remain. And there is a requirement that "In God We Trust" be included.
The Confederate flag originates from the American Civil War and was previously present in the upper left of the Mississippi flag. How could it have lasted this long?
Mississippi is the classic Southern state. The Confederate flag is considered by many to be a purely Southern flag and is very popular, not only in the private sphere. The state of Georgia even had it flying on its Capitol building until it was banned a few years ago.
This is part of a broader debate about how to deal with historically charged symbols and monuments. Should they be erased or retained as a reminder?
There are still many sculptures from the Nazi era [in Germany]. And how do we feel about Bismarck or the Kaiser? Their monuments remain standing, although they certainly did not act for the good of all. In eastern Germany, many monuments of Lenin and Marx have been removed. The problem is that there is no uniform approach.
What role do flags play in identifying a group?
A very large one. Every state, no matter how small, wants to represent itself. And it does this best with a flag. Every athlete who competes for his country at an international event and is successful shows his flag. Every mountaineer who climbs Mount Everest carries his or her flag. No matter how small a state is, the flag is an expression of its sovereignty and its people — and a symbol of pride.
Flags or flag-waving are often criticized as nationalistic. Do you agree?
In Germany, the issue is negatively charged because flags were very much in the foreground during the Nazi era. This has become a bit of a problem when you see what's going on at a football World Cup. It becomes problematic when flags of countries that no longer exist are waved — or those of the Third Reich.