As the last remaining Southern state to have the Confederate battle flag flying over its state house, Mississippi is facing rising pressure to take down the disputed symbol.
A group of 60 influential former and current Magnolia State residents – including author John Grisham, actor Morgan Freeman, legendary quarterback Archie Manning, and “The Help” author Kathryn Stockett – called for the emblem’s removal from the Mississippi state flag, in a letter published Sunday in The Clarion-Ledger.
"It is simply not fair, or honorable, to ask black Mississippians to attend schools, compete in athletic events, work in the public sector, serve in the National Guard, and go about their normal lives with a state flag that glorifies a war fought to keep their ancestors enslaved," the letter reads. "It's time for Mississippi to fly a flag for all its people."
The debate around Confederate symbols grew fiery after photos emerged of Dylann Roof, who was accused in June of killing nine black church members in Charleston, S.C., burning an American flag and holding up the Confederate battle flag.
A growing chorus has since condemned the flag as an emblem of the South’s racist past, and in response, businesses and state governments around the country began taking down Confederate symbols from government buildings and other public places. But opposition groups and critics insist that the flag represents a crucial part of Southern history, and argue that people, not symbols, are the source and cause of evil acts.
“The flag was no more the ‘source’ of horrible acts against mankind than a gun is the ‘source’ of someone’s death,” Mississippi state Sen. Melanie Sojourner (R) wrote on her Facebook page in July. “The ‘source’ is the hatred and evil that resides in the hearts of some who live and have lived among us.... Simply placing the blame on something that some see as a symbol only perpetuates the problem.”
Greg Stewart, administrator of Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library, added that use of the Confederate battle flag by rap and hip-hop artists "kind of sucks the wind out of the 'offensive' argument."
Other Confederate flag advocates, including Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R), point to Mississippi’s 2001 referendum, when 64 percent of residents voted against a proposal to change the state flag to 20 white stars on a blue field.
But 15 years is a long time, said novelist Greg Iles, who signed the letter that appeared in Sunday’s paper. “Think of America in 1931 and then in 1945 – that’s 14 years, and a tectonic shift in national identity,” Mr. Iles told The Clarion-Ledger. “Think of 1961 and 1975. The confederate flag is no longer a viable state or national symbol in 2015.”
Others who signed the letter include Netscape chief executive officer Jim Barksdale, music legend Jimmy Buffett, former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Reuben Anderson, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford, Basketball Hall of Famer Bailey Howell, former Gov. William Winter, and baseball legend Dave "Boo" Ferriss.
Governor Bryant said he has no plans of calling a special session on the matter, but experts say it’s unlikely that the matter will die down of its own accord.
“What you have here is a battle for history and how we remember history, but also a battle for where the country is going or seems to be going,” Harcourt Fuller, a history professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, previously told The Christian Science Monitor. “It’s a continuation of the Civil War, which has not really ended culturally. The battle flag represents that fact more than any other symbol.”