Battle over Confederate symbols continues with Mississippi state flag

It's the last state flag to feature the Confederate battle emblem.

Several municipalities in Mississippi removed the state flag from government property in the wake of Charleston, South Carolina, shooting that left nine African-American churchgoers dead.

Republican House speaker, Philip Gunn publicly supported changing the flag, and state lawmakers put forth 21 pieces of legislation proposing ways both to make it happen and prevent it. Then the movement lost steam. None of the legislation made it out of committee, culminating in what opponents of the flag saw as a repudiation of their efforts when a proclamation designating April as Confederate Heritage Month was issued.

To recapture the momentum, a rally was held in front of the U.S. Capitol. "Take It Down America" was organized to bring attention to a federal lawsuit arguing the flag incites racial violence and infringes upon the 14th Amendment protections for black residents. Actress and rally co-organizer Aunjanue Ellis said, "The fact that a state in our country is allowed to carry the emblem of a foreign country, one used by terrorist organizations, is unacceptable.”

Of course, not everyone in Mississippi shares her view of what the flag stands for, making it the last holdout in the battle over state-sponsored Confederate symbols. To many it's a symbol of Southern pride that's been misappropriated by hate groups, tarnishing its legacy. Some say it's only a matter of time before the symbol is removed; if that's the case, what will it take for change to come to Mississippi?

The Flag is not evil: The debate has ebbed and flowed since the civil rights era. The Charleston shooting revived the discussion nationwide amid evidence that the massacre was racially motivated. Images of accused shooter Dylann Roof with the Confederate battle flag fueled the controversy, even as flag supporters were quick to condemn him and any acts of violence purportedly carried out in the name of their heritage.

"The flag is not evil. Some people who used it were evil. But that doesn't mean we should get rid of it," said Marc Allen, spokesman for the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. His group supports keeping the flag, known in the state as the 1894 flag for the year it was introduced.

Mississippi seemed poised to act on the state flag after Speaker Gunn spoke out on the issue, saying "As a Christian, I believe our state's flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed
Legislative proposals ranged from appointing a commission to design a new flag to making the Magnolia flag, which preceded the current design, a second official flag. On the other side of the debate, lawmakers proposed requiring the state flag be flown on government property and withholding public funds from public colleges and universities that don't display the flag.

Ellis has become the public face of the fight. To her, the Confederate emblem is a symbol of racism that does not represent modern-day Mississippi. After staging a handful of rallies this year in the state capital of Jackson, Ellis and her allies brought their fight to Washington in an attempt to frame the debate as a national issue. "This is about America making a decision about who it is," Ellis said.

History Deserves Study: It's a controversial stance, seeing as state flags tend to be regarded as symbols of just that — the state and its residents, not the country on the whole. Mississippians on both sides of the debate believe it's an issue to be resolved by residents of the state, not outsiders.

And, as Bryant and supporters of the current flag point out, residents of the state have already made their opinion clear on the issue. In a 2001 referendum, 65% of Mississippians voted to keep the Confederate emblem instead of replace it with 20 white stars on a blue field to represent Mississippi's status as the 20th state.

Bryant has not publicly taken a hard line one way or the other, but he said that if it were to happen it should be decided by the people in a vote.

His explanation for Confederate Heritage Month offers some insight into his views on Confederate legacy. "Gov. Bryant believes Mississippi's history deserves study and reflection, no matter how unpleasant or complicated parts of it may be," spokesman Clay Chandler said in February, "Like the proclamation says, gaining insight from our mistakes and successes will help us move forward."

Anything Can Be Hateful: The Confederate battle emblem has been on the state flag since 1894. Opponents of the 1894 flag point to the circumstances under which it came to be as evidence of its divisive legacy. Proposed at a time when the state did not have an official flag or coat of arms, a joint legislative committee recommended the design. Though their recommendation made no explicit reference to the Confederacy, the symbolic undertones were apparent during the Reconstruction era, when Jim Crow laws that codified segregation were instituted across the South.

Supporters of the 1894 flag say it honors those who fought for the Confederacy, not the Ku Klux Klan and hate groups that have appropriated it for their own causes. Many who fought under the Confederate banner were fighting for their land, their families and their homes, not explicitly for the cause of slavery, said Allen of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "Anything can be hateful if you want it to be. It depends on how you want to interpret it," "The flag has been misused over years to support causes of hate groups. Yes, the KKK used it. But by saying that because hate groups used it we should get rid of it, by that logic we should get rid of the U.S. flag and the Christian cross since the KKK used them, too."

If flags reflect history and the people who designed them, at what point do they change to reflect contemporary values?

Seizing an Opportunity: In October, the University of Mississippi student government decided the time had come for their campus to ask the school administration to furl the banner. To the surprise of many, the administration obliged.

"I understand the flag represents tradition and honor to some. But to others, the flag means that some members of the Ole Miss family are not welcomed or valued," then-Interim Chancellor Morris Stocks said. "Our state needs a flag that speaks to who we are. It should represent the wonderful attributes of state that unite us, not those that still divide us." "They're making a different statement because they're different and that should not be pushed aside because of prior generations who never want the university to change."

Student senator Andrew Soper, who organized a petition urging Ole Miss to keep the flag, said, "I think it's the wrong move. They should have done it through the state of Mississippi. They didn't do it the right way.”

Others have a heritage, too: Given the "national sentiment" expressed last summer from all walks of life, the political will might finally exist in Mississippi to retire the flag.

To Senator John Horhn, who is African-American, the reason is clear: "Racism is still very much a part of the fabric of Mississippi," permeating policy decisions big and small.

The flag issue is a perfect example, he said. The inclusion of a Confederate symbol is a "slap in the face" to most African-Americans in the state, who make up 38% of the population.

"I understand that some people might see it as part of their heritage but I don't buy into the concept that it should be the heritage of the state. Others have a heritage, too, and that flags contradicts a lot of feelings about what our heritage ought to be."

"For anyone to suggest I have surrendered or backed up on my position of changing the flag is simply not true," Gunn said then. "I have not wavered in my viewpoint that we need a different flag to represent Mississippi. "I will continue to stand by my view that changing the flag is the right thing to do," he continued. "The flag is going to change. We can deal with it now or leave for future generations to address. I believe our state needs to address it now.

Source: Battle over Confederate symbols continues with Mississippi state flag
© 2017 Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Back to top