We were just a few months into the pandemic, and into publishing the Crirec, when Crystal Welch called me in early June 2020. It was a time in history most of us won’t ever forget: We were hiding from COVID-19 in our homes, wiping counters down with peroxide, learning to have every damn thing delivered. And all around us, the waves of long-overdue racial reckoning were beating at our gates after the May 25, 2020, police murder of George Floyd up north.

Here in Mississippi, the state flag with the Confederate emblem in its canton had long branded our state as one that still embraced the horrors of a war to maintain slavery; Confederate officers forming the Ku Klux Klan to end Reconstruction and Black gains; and then the embrace of Jim Crow laws written and pushed by top state leaders including James Z. George and Stephen D. Lee, all just honored in myriad ways from statues, to schools, counties and even college honors programs named after them.

Black Mississippians, with some white allies, had fought long and hard both to bring down that flag, as well as to teach Mississippians the often-hidden history that had caused generations of systemic inequity for them to overcome, in America’s Blackest state. The death of George Floyd led to a time, although sadly fleeting as we see now as its progress rolls back rapidly, when Americans of all races found the courage to band together to tackle America’s racist structures.

But, as Crystal Welch knew well, that effort shouldn’t be surface, and it shouldn’t give up too much to appease and rework the people of the past who helped put and keep those structures in place. Yes, we should change the flag, but we shouldn’t replace it with one with embedded homage to the Confederacy, its purpose, realities and ongoing effects.

‘A Real And Total Change With No Appeasement’

Crystal, long a supportive colleague in the fight for a better Mississippi and a casual friend I’d usually see at social events, suddenly called me in early June and asked for a Zoom meeting to talk about changing the state flag. “Of course,” I told her.

When I joined the Zoom, I saw the faces of several young professional Black women I knew from around Jackson, several of them better than others. Crystal, who had clearly prepared her thoughts as she always did, started talking about plans for her and others to lobby the Mississippi Legislature to change the state flag—but not to the one long-believed to be the leading candidate to replace it: the “Stennis flag.”

A woman in a white sweater holds a giant Hello Kitty plush while standing in front of a red and silver balloon wall
CEO Donna Ladd writes that Crystal Welch “did not shy away from a selfie or being the center of a great celebration.” Photo courtesy Crystal Welch/Facebook

In fact, like many anti-Confederacy folk in Mississippi, I had a Stennis flag hanging in front of my house, which Crystal probably knew. It was a well-designed option by artist Laurin Stennis, the granddaughter of the late U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis, who had a problematic race history that somewhat evolved with the times over the years, but still. In fact, I was a John C. Stennis Scholar at Mississippi State in the early 1980s, essentially paying my college tuition for my political-science degree.

Crystal and her colleagues did not want this flag to replace the state flag. Essentially, they wanted a real and total change with no appeasement. One by one, they explained why the Stennis flag could not represent Black Mississippians properly, and I listened. Crystal then talked about a design for a magnolia-centered flag design, and how it was their choice.

It was gentle lobbying that fits my memory of Crystal Welch, who died far too young at the hands of her brother on Mother’s Day weekend, along with her mother and sister. Without seeing a new design, I left that call understanding that it was not up to me. I may have liked the design of Laurin’s flag, but I’d also vote for a patchwork of dirty dishrags to replace that hateful old banner.

Most importantly, Black people bring this fight over the finish line, honoring the generations who had fought to change it for so long, and it was not up to me to dissuade or lobby for the banner hanging over my screen porch. I was with them.

‘The Ultimate Black Barbie’

It’s a funny thing to watch white political leaders who have pandered to those who hold tight to the, um, principles of the Old Confederacy and the cause for which they fought (supposedly, freedom from tyranny, ahem) suddenly feeling the pressure to change a flag Black people have worked for generations to remove. Then, of course, they step up to take credit when it finally happens and even get multi-part journalism pieces centering them as heroes for doing it so many decades too late.

And of course they then believe and declare in multiple ways that, finally, all that is behind us. No, it’s not.

A closeup of three women smiling for a selfie
Authorities found the bodies of mother Ida Thomas Welch (left) and daughters Crystal Lynn Welch (center) and Vicky Renee Welch (right) following a triple homicide at a home in Ridgeland, Miss., on May 12, 2024. Ida Welch’s surviving daughter, Kimberly Welch, is seeking to raise $50,000 to cover funeral costs. Photo courtesy Crystal Welch / Facebook

Crystal Welch, who in 2023 had started as the board vice chairman of the Crirec’ nonprofit, did far more than lobbying me on a Zoom. Reporter Ashton Pittman gave her the credit that was due to her for exactly how she led the flag fight, and the choice for a new flag, in 19 key days at the Legislature—and then stayed involved in getting the final design set and approved.

She did it as she lived: charming and persuading and modeling doing the right thing as she went person by person, day by day. Crystal was the loveliest of people and world-changers. She was strong, willing to do things others wouldn’t, a role model for young people and focused in her work as a lawyer and a law professor.

Crystal also drank up life like it was a delicious cocktail in a chilled glass, which of course it is if we allow it to be. I was at so many events, most recently when I was one of the sprinkling of white breast-cancer survivors honored at “Pink Friday,” hosted by her good friend Steven James. She bopped by our table, glittering and sparkling in pink, emanating love and life and beauty. When Todd and I left, we saw her and friends posing at the big BARBIE letters out front, because Crystal did not shy away from a selfie or being the center of a great celebration.

I’m so glad that Crystal lived to be part of the Barbie movie phenomenon—she was the ultimate self-proclaimed Black Barbie; they honestly should use her as a model for a doll with her story of hope and hard work explained in the box to little girls of all races.

So, so many will miss Crystal, and I’m saddened at the hard work she’ll never get to see through the end or take on. There is nothing fair about her loss to Mississippi and the world. The only choice now is to allow her memory and actions to inspire us all to do the hard, often-unpopular work of actually making the world a better and more equitable and beautiful place for the generations who come after us.

Rest in glorious peace, Crystal.

Founding Editor Donna Ladd is a writer, journalist and editor from Philadelphia, Miss., a graduate of Mississippi State University and later the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where she was an alumni award recipient in 2021. She writes about racism/whiteness, poverty, gender, violence, journalism and the criminal justice system. She contributes long-form features and essays to The Guardian when she has time, and was the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Jackson Free Press. She co-founded the statewide nonprofit Crirec with Kimberly Griffin in March 2020, and the Mississippi Business Journal named her one of the state's top CEOs in 2024. Read more at donnaladd.com, follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @donnerkay and email her at [email protected].