Last year I had the opportunity to hear and see Oprah Winfrey live and in person at Mountainfilm in Telluride. Among the many great moments that afternoon was a question from the audience: “Is there hope for Mississippi?”
Oprah was born in tiny Kosciusko, Mississippi, where she was raised for the first six years by her grandmother. That grandmother taught Oprah to read–she was shocked when she moved north to Milwaukee for the first grade and her fellow students were just learning the alphabet. That grandmother also taught her to love the bible and tried to teach her how to do laundry. “Pay attention, because you’ll be doing this one day.” Even at six, Oprah knew better, and also knew better than to say so.
That day last year in Colorado, Oprah empathized with the woman from Mississippi. “There can only be hope when Mississippi sincerely looks at itself and its past.” In order to move forward, she explained, there has to be a reckoning, and to that point there had been seemingly no interest in soul searching. “I’m sorry to say,” said Oprah, “that at this moment there doesn’t seem to be hope for Mississippi.”
Today, Oprah would probably answer that question differently.
Yesterday, the Mississippi lawmakers voted to pull down the state flag, the only state flag with the overt symbols of the Confederacy. Mississippi is the state with the highest percentage of black citizens and for decades there have been strenuous efforts to have the flag replaced. When citizens last had the chance to vote on a referendum to change the flag in 2001 it lost by two to one.
The aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, however, has given intense momentum for change. Statues have been pulled down, some by protesters, some by governments. Aunt Jemima is headed out and so is Uncle Ben.
The Mississippi flag change may not have been brought about by soul searching and reflection but by economics and athletics. Walmart said it wouldn’t fly the flag. The NCAA and Southeast conference said that Mississippi would not be allowed to host championships until the flag was changed. Realtors begged for the change, so did the Baptist organizations black and white. “Whether we like it or not, the Confederate emblem on our state flag is viewed by many as a symbol of hate — there’s no getting around that fact,” Jason White, a Republican state representative.
So in this time of Coronavirus spreading well, virally, of the Russians offering bounty for killing American soldiers, of unprecedented unemployment and economic pain….it is nice to know that there is hope for Mississippi.
And, thus, hope for us all.
My favorite quote from that Oprah afternoon was: “You become what you believe.”