Tomorrow marks one year since the former Mississippi state flag was retired. It is also day five of Mississippi Today’s five-part series highlighting Mississippi Speaker of the House Philip Gunn’s work to change the flag. While his work was very important to get the flag changed, it was built upon the foundation of decades of work by activists, primarily African-American activists, that some felt was glossed over in favor of the Republican politician’s “five years and one week” of work. This expands into a larger question of who is responsible for change: activists or politicians?
While the role and job description of a politician varies per person and is speculated wildly upon by the public, it is essentially to represent his or her constituents. Politicians, however, will have their own biases and ideas of what is most important, which can often come into conflict with their constituents’ priorities. To mediate these priorities or to promote their own, activists will rise up to speak out for or against an idea. The past year and a half has been overflowing with activism, promoting racial justice, peace and political freedoms for those domestic and abroad and speaking out against racism, anti-Semitism, human rights abuses and violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, to name a few. Some political changes have been made, but many feel superficial (such as the formation of Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C. over the summer only to literally pave over activists’ demands). Many activists feel that these changes are a watered-down version of what they have fought for and are only carried out to improve politicians’ “political clout” in their communities. Grand gestures have been made, but real political change often does not.
An example of real, but perhaps limited, political change is the new bipartisan infrastructure deal. While this deal has arms that reach into many aspects of infrastructure, one, in particular, is $78 billion invested into water infrastructure and power grid improvements over eight years. February 2021 showed America’s, and particularly the South’s, deteriorating infrastructure in these areas, including the Texas Power Crisis and the Jackson Water Crisis. These, coupled with the storied water crises in Flint, Michigan, and Eastern Kentucky, show how desperately Americans need these improvements. This infrastructure deal, however, comes way later than needed or expected. Activists have been calling for these changes for months, years and decades, but their work is now overshadowed by Congress’s pricey but necessary plan. This eight-year plan, however, does not guarantee potable water or air conditioning tomorrow to those in need. That work has often been done by activists and organizers who facilitate food drives, water drives and the like.
While intangibles like “credit” and “original ideas” are not important compared to the work that is physically done, it is important to recognize where initiatives come from and the value their originators have to society. If activists’ ideas and labor are consistently overshadowed, many will become exhausted and unable to continue their work. This has dire consequences for the American people, as politicians will lose their muses and be left to their own devices and priorities while everyday Americans must go without basic necessities.
Londyn Lorenz is the opinion editor from Perryville, Missouri majoring in Arabic and international studies.