Feud over Mississippi flag moves to federal appeals court

A federal appeals court is set to hear arguments Tuesday over a lawsuit filed by an African-American attorney who contends that the Mississippi flag constitutes 'state-sanctioned hate speech.' 

Rogelio V. Solis/AP/File
A Mississippi state flag is unfurled by Sons of Confederate Veterans and other groups on the grounds of the state Capitol in Jackson, Miss., in January 2016.

A battle over a Confederate symbol on Mississippi’s flag has raged for generations, igniting divisions and reopening wounds of the state’s darker history with slavery and segregation.

Now, the ideological battle becomes a legal one, making its way before a federal appeals court.

The 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans was slated to hear arguments Tuesday that stem from a 2016 lawsuit filed by Carlos Moore, an African-American attorney. He argues that the symbol serves as “state-sanctioned hate speech” and a reminder to black residents of a time when they were counted only as second-class citizens. Supporters say the flag represents  the state’s history and residents' proud Southern heritage.

A district judge dismissed the case in September, ruling that Mr. Moore lacked evidence of an identifiable injury caused by the flag. He hopes that an appeals court will order the lower court to hear full arguments regarding its use.

Debates over historical symbols that seem to celebrate America’s entangled history with slavery have become common. The Confederate flag itself has become an increasingly controversial symbol, and some believe that displaying it proudly on government-owned buildings has the power to encourage white supremacy and bolster those intent on committing hate crimes.

And following the 2015 Charleston church shooting in which white supremacist and Confederate flag-wielder Dylann Roof entered a black church’s Bible study meeting and shot nine parishioners dead, many have warned that symbols can have serious consequences.

The flag has been used as the state’s official symbol since 1894. It is the last in the country to feature the Confederate army’s battle emblem, which includes a red background bearing a blue X and 13 white stars.

When debate over the flag boiled over into a referendum in 2001, a majority of voters sided with tradition and voted to keep the symbol. Gov. Phil Bryant (R) has said that another referendum should decide what becomes of the flag, not legislators or judges.

"The district court was correct that Moore fails to identify that part of the Constitution that guarantees a legal right to be free of anxiety,” the state’s assistant attorneys general wrote in arguments to the court.

While District Judge Carlton Reeves, who is black, dismissed the suit for lack of legal standing, he did not give in to arguments denying the symbol’s ties to slavery and deep seated racial bias.

In his judgment, he quoted the state's 1861 secession declaration, which referred to slavery as "the greatest material interest of the world."

"To put it plainly, Mississippi was so devoted to the subjugation of African-Americans that it sought to form a new nation predicated upon white supremacy,” he added in his own words.

That sentiment, at least, has encouraged those like Moore who want to see the flag move into the past.

"To the extent Judge Reeves discussed the merits, he had some things to say which were very much in accord with the allegations Carlos made," said Moore's attorney, Mike Scott.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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