When my Guardian editor asked me if I would be interested in roving around my home state of Mississippi and talking to people about why they like the Confederate flag, I jumped at the chance. It is no secret that I am not a fan of the flag, and would like to see the state flag changed, but I also believe in listening to people’s reasons, which are seldom as monolithic as we think they are, and placing them a wider context where possible. I also asked my editor to allow photographer Kate Medley to come home to Mississippi and travel with me. I’ve worked with Kate on projects related to race and Klan violence in the past, and know that she also leads with genuine curiosity rather than judgement in interviews.
I reached out to Lindy Isonhood for my Confederate flag story in The Guardian after seeing a documentary about her at the Crossroads Film Festival in Jackson. She had sat on a jury that had ordered the execution of a convicted murderer and later had a change of heart. Years afterward, she traveled the state, with the documentary maker, to visit the other jurors to talk to them about it. A shorter version of the doc is now on PBS.
While watching the doc, I saw a Confederate battle—the original Robert E. Lee flag, not the Mississippi flag with it as the canton—in the couple’s backyard. Nothing was said about the flag in the film, but I remembered it and reached out to her later once I had this assignment. As she is now a 66-year-old white woman from Mississippi who had changed her mind on a conservative pro-death penalty stance, I was intrigued to learn why she and her husband still fly the real Confederate flag.
At their homes—we visited both properties in different counties mainly so Kate could get a photo of the flag, which is at the home they call their “retreat”—it became clear that Ira was more devoted to the flag than Lindy seems to be. He had attended Forest Hill High School (then all-white) in Jackson and then Ole Miss. Then both used the Confederate battle flag, often called the “rebel flag,” as their official emblem.
One of my most fascinating interviews on the Confederate flag of Mississippi was with two close friends, one white and black. I didn’t know that Thomasa Massey was going to bring Evangela Hentz to our appointment, which happened to be in the rain in Pearl Park in Rankin County. But she did.
Massey was wearing her “Pride, Not Prejudice” T-shirt with Confederate butterflies (!) that she had designed herself. The two women finished each other’s sentences, while telling us under a pavilion that being concerned about the Confederate and Mississippi flags is a waste of time better spent trying to solve other problems.
Hentz called the flag just an “inanimate object,” adding, “Stop letting it control you.”
“If you don’t breathe life into something, it will die,” Massey aaddedds.
The friends reject being offended over what Hentz calls “just a piece of cloth.”
“If everyone, I promise you, would take one hour out of every day worldwide, for 60 minutes and did not hate, the world would change,” Massey interjects.
Hentz cuts in. “Overnight, just about. Because you might discover the person you hated …”
“… is the person you need the most in your life …,” Massey said.
“… to complete you, to get you to that next step,” Hentz added. “I wouldn’t be as far as I am without her.”
“Same with me.”
“If I let that she’s a white person that likes the flag divide us, all that distance for what?” Hentz said.
“… a piece of cloth,” Massey finished as the rain hits the pavilion.