A listening tour in Mississippi asks flag supporters why they still support a symbol that represents pain, division and difficult history
by Donna Ladd with pictures by Kate Medley | The Guardian | August 6, 2018
It was 1957 when little Lindy Luby’s great-uncle showed up at her house near Benton, Mississippi, where the family had lived for generations. He was a justice of the peace in Yazoo City, the gateway to the fertile, brutal lands of the Delta.
“Effie, it’s just been a bad day,” the lawman said to his sister, as the six-year-old listened. “I just had to go cut a black boy down off that hanging tree and take him to his mama.”
The infamous tree, used for lynching, was bending over a bridge on Highway 433 toward Lexington.
“What did he do?” Effie Luby asked.
“He raped and killed a white woman.”
Lindy, now 66, has shifted her stance on the death penalty. After she sat on a jury that condemned a man to death, she now campaigns for alternatives to execution and stars in a new documentary about her experience.
The first cut of the film also showed Lindy and husband, Ira Isonhood, flying the Confederate battle flag on a 20ft pole in the backyard of one of their homes.
To many white people in the south and beyond, the Confederate flag is a sign of historic pride and defiance to whatever is currently called “liberalism”; to most black Americans, the flag stands for white supremacy and racial violence. Today, the symbol often appears at “pro-white” rallies and is a lightning rod in America’s calcifying racial divides.
Lindy and Ira Isonhood walk along Deer Hollow, their property in Copiah County, Mississippi. Photograph Kate Medley for the Guardian
The flag’s history is fraught and complicated, as was the bloody civil war that erupted in 1861 between the US south – where America’s slave trade had relocated and expanded by the mid-1800s – and the north. After the north won, it imposed a harsh Reconstruction on the south that still fuels white resentment today.
The post-war white south embraced the Confederate battle flag, making it their sentimental symbol of the “lost cause” of the war. By the time Mississippi embedded it into its new state flag in 1894, the flag was used to both honor the Confederate dead as well as a romanticized version of the war’s purpose.
By the mid-20th century, the flag symbolized white resistance to ending segregation laws. The Ku Klux Klan flew it at lynching parties and angry mobs waved it outside public schools as black children enrolled; in front of of white “segregation academies” and next to leering dogs unleashed on black protesters wanting the right to vote. (Today, its supporters say the KKK co-opted it.)
In April 2001, Mississippians voted along race lines to keep the flag as it was. The debate reignited in 2015 after Dylann Roof killed nine black people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. A photo soon emerged of him holding a Confederate flag.
The matter is especially raw in Mississippi, a state that suffered tremendous Confederate casualties and went from being the richest state from slavery before the civil war to one of the poorest.
The Isonhoods were the first stop of my May 2018 listening tour of Mississippiwith photographer Kate Medley to ask flag supporters in our home state why they still support a symbol that represents so much pain, division and difficult history – even as they urge black Americans to get over their resistance to it.
Yazoo County, west-central Mississippi
Ira Isonhood, 71, remembers his father inviting black people to sit in his yard to watch a basketball game through the window when he got the area’s first television – a progressive move in the mid-20th century south. But he was still a product of his time.
“Yes, he was. [My father] was prejudiced,” Ira says.
One day, a black boy came to his dad’s store with a shopping list his mother had signed with “Mrs”. His father sent a note back with no groceries. When her husband came later, the storekeeper admonished him in front of young Ira. “Don’t ever allow your wife to sign ‘Mrs’ again!” he warned.
Still, Ira flies the flag, which his own high school and college used as an emblem.
“The Confederate flag played a big, big part in our history,” Ira says. “… Why are these minorities pushing to do away with this flag? Look at what’s happening to our statues!” he says.