(From The New York Times)
LOUISVILLE, Miss. – In single strokes after the massacre of nine black churchgoers in Charleston in June, Confederate battle flags were taken from statehouse grounds in South Carolina and Alabama, pulled from shelves at major retailers like Walmart and declared unwelcome, if to limited effect, at Nascar races.
What happened so swiftly elsewhere is not so simple in Mississippi. The Confederate battle flag is not simply flying in one hotly disputed spot at the State Capitol but occupying the upper left corner of the state flag, which has been flying since 1894. And as recently as 2001, Mississippians voted by a nearly two-to-one ratio to keep it. Recent polling suggests the majority have not changed their minds.
“My flag’s been flying for 33 years, and I’m not about to take it down,” said Nancy Jenkins, 58, a postal worker who is white and who flies the Mississippi flag and the United States flag at her house a block south of Louisville City Hall. “It doesn’t stand for hate. It means a lot of people fought and died.”
Over the past few months, there have been scattered outbreaks of municipal defiance by those who find the Confederate flag offensive, as mayors and city councils from the Delta to the Pine Belt have decided to no longer fly the state flag.
But beyond these sporadic gestures, any organized effort was always going to wait until politicians were on the safe side of this year’s election. With the closing of the polls on Tuesday night, what could turn out to be the last battle over the Confederate flag in Mississippi has begun in earnest.
“It’s all about momentum,” said Dane Waters, the head of Tipping Point strategies, a communications and advocacy firm. “If you take a pocket here and pocket there of things happening, I don’t think anything is going to change.”
This week, Mr. Waters, a self-described conservative who has been retained by a group of people he declined to name, will arrive in Mississippi to pick up a difficult task: forming an unlikely and perhaps unmanageable alliance of preachers, business executives, state boosters and civil rights advocates to remove forever the Confederate battle flag from the state flag.
He is working with the Flag for All Mississippians Coalition, which was started by Sharon Brown, an activist in Jackson, who is black. The campaign has already been organizing supporters and held a hundreds-strong rally at the State Capitol. But Mr. Waters spoke of other tools that will be brought to bear outside the public eye, such as pressure on political donors and lobbying in the Legislature.
The coalition that he and others are trying to put together would need to unite groups almost never politically aligned, testing the depth of what Mr. Waters called the state’s “tremendous social, economic and racial divide.”
In the immediate aftermath of Charleston, it seemed that such a coalition might be possible here. Several conservative political leaders called for a change, including the state’s two United States senators and the speaker of the Mississippi House (inspiring critics to print “Keep the Flag, Change the Speaker” yard signs). Down came flags at city buildings in Grenada, Magnolia, Starkville, Clarksdale and Yazoo City. In October, even the University of Mississippi lowered the flag at the circle where segregationists once clashed with federal troops over the admission of James Meredith.
But the move to change the flag, which, in the words of the daughter of the state senator who designed it, was intended to “perpetuate in a legal and lasting way that dear battle flag under which so many of our people had so gloriously fought,” is not widely popular. It takes no time at all in any Mississippi downtown to find that out.
“This is what we stand for – this is our pride,” Trey Jefcoat, a 26-year-old construction worker in Hattiesburg, said on the October day that the nearby University of Southern Mississippi took down the state flag on campus. “We don’t think it’s offensive, and most of the black folks I know don’t think it’s offensive.”
Partisanship in Mississippi has become ever more racially polarized, and there are few topics on which racial division has been more explicit. In the 2001 referendum, according to the book “Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976-2008,” 90 percent of whites voted to keep the flag as it is. Among blacks, 95 percent voted for a new design, which replaced the cross with a circle of white stars.
“Don’t try to force me as a black man who knows his history to honor something that goes against my heritage,” said Robert Brown, a 42-year-old barber in Louisville, a small town in the central Mississippi pines with a population that is about 60 percent black.
Over the summer, Mr. Brown began using his post at Eiland’s Straight Line Barbershop to expound upon the causes of the Civil War, lecturing to the men who had come in for a trim or a shave about slavery, the meaning of the battle flag and the offense of its lingering in the state flag. One evening in September, he went to City Hall to ask that officials follow the example of the other scattered towns and cities and vote on whether to fly the state flag.
He was met, he said, with mannerly talk of pressing budgets and correct protocol, and ultimately told that this was really an issue best left to the Legislature. The state flag still flies.
If a new flag is to be adopted, the simple math of a 60 percent white majority statewide dictates that it will come down to whether enough whites support it, either in the Legislature or at the polls. Feelings about the flag run so deep – as evident from the recent arrest of a man in Tupelo who was accused of firebombing a Walmart for not selling Confederate merchandise – that a widespread change of heart seems hard to fathom.
At a Hardee’s a few blocks north of Louisville City Hall, older men talked over coffee of how “the blacks” tried to get the flag taken down at City Hall and the cemetery – one man drives by daily to make sure they are still flying – and how such crusades would be as doomed across the state as they were here.
The minority who want the flag changed should not be allowed to dictate to the majority who want it kept, Carl Higginbotham, 63, said.
“Funds need to be cut off for that school,” he added of Ole Miss.
With sentiments like these widespread, many advocates of a change in the flag, Democrat and Republican alike, believe their only hope lies in the Legislature. They speak bluntly of the odds against them in a statewide vote and of the kind of international attention Mississippi would attract. But they also acknowledge that legislators and state officials, beyond those who staunchly defend the flag, would probably be quite happy to turn over such an incendiary topic to a referendum.
Derrick Johnson, the president of the state conference of the N.A.A.C.P., said he would actively oppose a referendum, insisting that economic pressure was the only answer. “There’s never been a change in Mississippi when it comes to racial relations without pressure,” he said.
State Representative Scott DeLano, a Republican, also said a legislative solution was the preferred way to bring about a change, but he insisted that too much provocation could jeopardize the good will required for a successful vote.
“Within Republican circles there have been discussions about this,” he said, “about how we start the discussion and how we work towards unifying the state, and what that discussion would look like.”
“I think it’s going to take some more time,” he added.
Time appears to be somewhat short. Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican who won an overwhelming victory over token opposition on Tuesday, recently came out in support of putting the question on next year’s ballot.
“I trust the people of the state of Mississippi as they are the sovereigns of this state,” he said recently. “They should be empowered as to the decision of what their flag should look like.”
There is no making everyone happy on this, said Charlie Box of Columbus, a small city near the Alabama line that claims to have been the site of the first Confederate Memorial Day.
Mr. Box is one of two whites on the six-member City Council, which voted in July to take down state flags at city buildings. He was not a fan of this approach, believing the city should defer to the state, and found the whole issue unnecessarily divisive, he said. When he polled his mostly white district, he found many dead set against taking the flag down; one woman put his photograph up in her beauty salon afterward, identifying him as persona non grata.
But about half of those he polled told him what eventually formed the basis of his decision: that it was time to take the flag down and move on.
“I just think people are tired of hearing about this,” Mr. Box said.
The vote, in the end, was unanimous.
(Courtesy of Dixie Heritage Newsletter)