Normally when I write about my Mississippi hometown, which sits newly polished since Hurricane Katrina on the lazy blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico, it’s about growing up in a large family in a small town where almost everyone knew everyone, whether you were white or Black.
It’s about the joys and sorrows, the laughter and tears, the mistakes made and lessons learned during those childhood and teenage years.
This time, though, it’s about the flag. The flag that hung high in front of the courthouse on Main Street, which also housed the county jail. The Mississippi state flag with the rebel flag settled brazenly in a corner. It had flown in the state since February 1894. But not anymore.
The councils of two cities on the Mississippi coast — Gulfport, on June 15, and my hometown, Bay St. Louis, on June 17 — voted to remove the flags from municipal buildings. Twelve days later, the state’s legislature woke up. The House voted 84-35 and the Senate 36-14 to change the flag. The galleries were filled to watch history being rewritten. Gov. Tate Reeves signed the legislation.
Now, that symbol of inequality, of racism, of hate and hurt, has been buried in the graveyard of shame. One hundred and twenty-six years too late.
It was wonderfully satisfying that the Bay, our shortened and affectionate name for the city, was one of the first two cities in the state to say enough is enough. From the moment the French colonists created it and named it for Louis IX, who was canonized in 1297, it has always been more New Orleans than Mississippi, with its Creole food, large Catholic population, galette or beignets and coffee and chicory at breakfast, and for many years Cajun French interlaced with English. It has long been a weekend and summer destination for New Orleans residents who own homes on the beach.
I haven’t lived there for more than six decades, but my roots are there, and nine generations of Favres have lived there. A nephew, Mike Favre, is the current mayor, and his brother, Eddie, was mayor when Katrina made landfall in Bay St. Louis and left the city on crutches, battered but not beaten.
The Bay of my young years was indeed a segregated community, elements of blatant racism painted in bold letters, ugly graffiti on the soul of the city: Black and white schools, Black and white churches, upstairs for Blacks and downstairs for whites at the theaters, totally separate restaurants and bars, an unconstitutional poll tax on voting, and the list went on.
Yet, Black and white families lived side-by-side or across the street from each other in parts of the city; white families attended church at the all-Black seminary, St. Augustine’s; cemeteries were for all residents; Latino kids from Mexico and Central America were students at St. Stanislaus, the Catholic boarding/day school.
Now, after all these years, the flag has come down. After George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Stephon Clark, and a list too long for this space, the flag has come down. After mass protests across the land, including Mississippi, after Black Lives Matter has become meaningful and not just letters on a T-shirt, after Confederate statues are removed or defaced, the flag has come down.
The Sea Coast Echo, the weekly newspaper, which was once owned by my family and where I started my own journalism career, captured this moment during the meeting when the decision was made. Jeffery Reed is the council member who made the motion.
Here’s the Echo’s account:
“Reed told his fellow councilmen earlier in the meeting that on Saturday he had gone to the crawfish boil for first-responders that the Hancock County NAACP and local law enforcement officials worked together to host at the Martin Luther King Park in the Bay.
“We had more whites out there working at MLK Park than African Americans,” Reed said, “and I am talking about on their knees, pulling the weeds out of the flower beds, and power washing and other things ... I don’t think it’s a moment, I think it is a movement. I think this is what Bay St. Louis is all about. Don’t get me wrong — racism is everywhere. Some of my best Caucasian friends are racist, but racism has two forms: You have malignant racism and benign racism.
“Malignant racism will kill you. Benign racism will not kill you, but it won’t help you either. Until we make some progress in these particular areas, that we stand out and stand up against this thing, I think we genuinely — I believe that is where it starts.”
It wasn’t long before Reed and the mayor received vile, racist letters that are rightly being investigated.
The flag has come down, but there is so much more to do.
Will this just be a moment or a movement?
Gregory Favre is the retired vice president of news for the McClatchy Company and former executive editor of the Sacramento Bee.
This column was originally published by the San Francisco Chronicle.