A renewed challenge to the state flag, the only one with the Confederate battle flag embedded in it, has stirred a familiar debate between tradition and changed views on race.
ATLANTA — Five years ago, in the wake of the horrific massacre of black parishioners by a white supremacist at a South Carolina church, the University of Mississippi lowered the state flag for the last time on campus as Confederate symbols were being brought down across the South.
The chancellor then said the state’s emblem, the nation’s only state flag featuring the Confederate battle flag, failed to align with “our core values, such as civility and respect for others.” All eight of Mississippi’s public universities also stopped flying the flag, joined by cities across the state, including Grenada, Magnolia, Starkville, Clarksdale and Yazoo City. Jackson, the state capital, also decided not to fly it on city property.
In the long, passionate debate across the South over rooting out Confederate symbols, Mississippi’s flag remains one of the most conspicuous holdouts — with the battle flag of the Confederacy vividly embedded at the heart of the state flag. And for decades, many in the state have resisted recurring efforts to change it, seeing in the flag a proud reminder of their ancestors’ bloodshed in fighting for Mississippi.
Now as Confederate monuments and symbols are being furiously toppled yet again, the debate over the Mississippi flag has been reinvigorated. Supporters of removing the battle flag, once and for all, say the national ferment set off by the death of George Floyd has provided a level of momentum they have not had before.
“This is the time we’re going to get this done,” said the Rev. Darren Leach, the senior pastor at Genesis Church, a nondenominational congregation in Columbus, Miss., near the Alabama state line. “It’s a good chance for the good people of Mississippi to just do what they know they should do: Get us out from under this blight. The flag is a blight.”
The pressure has ratcheted up in recent weeks as forces outside Mississippi have denounced the flag.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association announced on Friday that it will not host championship events in states where the Confederate battle flag is a prominent, sanctioned symbol, a rule change that essentially singles out Mississippi. That came a day after the Southeastern Conference demanded for the flag to be changed, threatening similar fallout in terms of championship events.
The moves amplify the economic concerns attached to the debate over the flag, with business leaders saying keeping the flag as it is risks further financial harm to a state that is already one of the poorest in the country.
“When recruiting against other regions for employers, image matters,” John Hairston, the president and chief executive of Hancock Whitney, a banking company with branches across the region, wrote in an essay published in The Sun Herald newspaper in Biloxi. “We need a brand that showcases our capable work force, competitive cost of living, and superb quality of life. Simultaneously, we should be mindful that there are images which create division and distraction. One of those images is the current state flag.”
Defenders of the flag have mobilized, viewing the challenge to the flag as a renewed assault mounted against their history.
“I don’t think we’re really talking about flags anymore,” Chris McDaniel, a Republican State Senator, said in a Facebook live video for his supporters. “It’s more important than that: I think we’re talking about a structural and cultural revolution being pushed by the radical left, the intolerant left.”
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He urged viewers to call state lawmakers and demand them to thwart any effort to change the flag. “This is not about a flag,” Mr. McDaniel said. “It’s about finally and firmly saying no.”
The flag remains deeply polarizing in the state, with one poll taken this month reporting a statistical tie on the question of whether the state symbol should be retired. The poll conducted by Chism Strategies, a progressive advocacy group based in Mississippi, found that the divisions cleaved largely along racial and partisan lines.
Opponents of changing the flag contended that the matter had already been decided, pointing to the statewide referendum in 2001 in which voters overwhelmingly decided against replacing the Confederate symbol in the flag with 20 white stars, a recognition of Mississippi’s place as the 20th state to join the union.
Five years ago, the killing of nine congregants inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., set off a similar reckoning, bringing down Confederate monuments and symbols. South Carolina and Alabama lowered the Confederate flags that had continued to fly on statehouse grounds.
A coalition of activists, elected officials and business leaders, among others, attempted again to change the Mississippi flag. Conservative political leaders joined in calling for a change, including the state’s two United States senators and the speaker of the Mississippi House. Still, the resistance was too stiff.
In recent weeks, many in the State Legislature, which is dominated by Republicans, had indicated their support for a change. One option under consideration is adding a second official state flag.
A survey of lawmakers conducted last week by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization, found that 63 members of the House and Senate wanted the Legislature to change the flag; seven wanted to keep the flag; and 51 from both houses wanted voters to decide.
“The options we’ve got are for the Legislature to take the leadership role, or put it to a referendum,” said Philip Gunn, the Republican House speaker, according to Mississippi Today, adding, “I’ve always maintained that I feel the Legislature should take the leadership role.”
Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, has said that he believes it should be up to the voters. Asked about his own view of the flag in a recent news conference, he replied, “I see a flag that the vast majority of Mississippians voted in 2001 to maintain as Mississippi’s state flag.”
Those past failed efforts have tempered any sense of unfettered optimism in changing the flag this time around. Yet supporters contend that perception of the flag has been weakened as cities and other institutions acted on their own, and that the broader movement for racial change unfolding across the country helps them gain traction.
“This is something new,” said Shennette Garrett-Scott, a professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Mississippi, adding of those leading the charge now, “They are able to leverage that past dissent, that past activism and past coalition work to really push the state in a way that it has never been pushed.”
Source: New York Times