Mississippi's kinder Confederate flag debate

Ask Mississippians like Jim Giles and Anthony Hervey about the state flag, and they will spend more than a few minutes explaining their opinion, in detail.

Mr. Giles, who heads a Southern heritage group, and Mr. Hervey, director of the Black Confederate Soldiers Foundation, both say the flag, with its Confederate emblem, should remain as a reminder of the past. "It's about a past, however oppressive, that we must not forget," says Hervey. "If we forget it, we may not be able to remember to go forward."

If the flag must change to suit these politically correct times, they say, then Magnolia State voters, not politicians, should decide the banner's fate.

Lawmakers agree. In an effort to avert the protests and bitterness that have spread across Dixie, Mississippi is waging a listening campaign. By soliciting citizens' thoughts at town meetings and in high school essay contests, the state hopes to foster a spirit of civility and consensus to deal with what has proved to be rancorous issue for the South.

From Alabama, where the battle to remove the Confederate flag from the Capitol dome lasted more than 30 years, to Arkansas, where many have questioned the star representing the Confederacy on the state's flag, the fight between the right to possess heritage versus the need to obliterate oppression continues to shadow the South.

"You will never see an issue in the South ever again that generates such passion," says David Sansing, a retired professor who has written textbooks on Mississippi history. "It won't fade as time goes on."

Indeed, for years the flag issue has waved over the South's courtrooms and capitols as the region has attempted to mend racial strife and move forward from a past filled with revered imagery of Southern belles, moonlight, and magnolias.

Since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Rebel flag has inspired mixed messages, representing Southern pride and Southern hate, in groups from rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd to the Ku Klux Klan.

Earlier this year, South Carolina erupted in protests that spilled into the presidential campaign and culminated in the removal of the Confederate flag from the Capitol dome July 1. Fallout from the controversy still looms over the state.

It's that kind of reaction that Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove hopes to prevent in his state. In May, after the state Supreme Court ruled that Mississippi doesn't have an official flag or coat of arms, he created a 17-member advisory commission to study, propose, and report a new design.

The flag's design and coat of arms were adopted in 1894. But when state laws were updated in 1906, sections dealing with the symbols were not carried forward.

Last Thursday, the commission held its first public hearing in Tupelo. More than 300 people turned out for a meeting that often became heated and tense.

"Most people are for keeping the flag the same. They say it stands for the past," says Jack Reed, the moderator for the first hearing. "Regardless of how the meetings turn out, it's important that people tell us how they feel."

The commission is also asking high school students to submit designs or essays on what the future flag should symbolize.

But the issue is one of enduring discord, and for all the state's attempts to reach a civil solution, there are vehement battles still being fought in the courthouse.

A county judge is currently looking over a challenge to a proposal that would lead to a statewide vote on the flag in 2002. While an attorney wants Missippians to decide the flag issue at the polls, another group says the state's Constitution does not allow such referendums.

The flag debate has even reached the US Supreme Court, which will decide whether the University of Mississippi can prohibit spectators from waving Confederate flags at athletic events.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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