Last wave: Could Confederate battle flag furl in Mississippi?

The Ole Miss Associated Student Body Senate plans to vote as early as Tuesday on a resolution asking the university to 'cease flying the Mississippi state flag.' 

(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
In this Oct. 8, 2015 Myrtle Alexander, 45, of McComb, Miss., stands outside the town's city hall as both the American and Mississippi state flags fly on a flag pole. Alexander says the Mississippi state flag "kind of reminds us of the past." It’s a divisive issue that makes politicians squirm: Should Mississippi remove a Confederate battle emblem from its state flag, or stick with the banner it has flown since Reconstruction?

As police escorted a group of pro-Confederate battle flag protesters from the University of Mississippi campus on Friday, they were serenaded by college students singing the 1969 Steam lyric, “Na, na, na, na, Hey, hey, hey, goodbye.”

To be sure, although six other Southern states have flags inspired in one way or another by Confederate-era flags, Mississippi remains the last US state to say goodbye to the unmistakable and divisive Confederate battle flag – the tipped-over “Southern cross” – which remains as part of the state flag on top of the state capitol dome in Jackson. (The Mississippi flag also flies in Washington as part of a federal 50-flag display.)

But four months after a mass shooting in Charleston, S.C., sparked the South Carolina legislature to furl the polarizing flag from the capitol grounds and take it to the state archives, Mississippi, a complex and frequently misunderstood Southern state, is also experiencing a shift in thinking on the flag and its modern legacy.

Many top state officials seeking reelection are largely steering clear of the topic, with incumbent Gov. Phil Bryant saying the question should go to a referendum. But by state law, that couldn’t occur until 2018. Legally, the legislature could furl the flag as soon as it meets early next year.

Mississippians more broadly are reconsidering a long-held belief that the flag represents a rich history, not bigotry. Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn said recently that “the flag has become a point of offense” for many people.

And others, including lieutenant governor candidate Tim Johnson, have flipped 180 degrees about keeping the flag: "You don't hold onto something that's holding you back,” he told the Associated Press.

Since the killing of nine parishioners by a Confederate flag enthusiast at the Mother Emmanuel Baptist Church in Charleston in June, a number of Mississippi counties and cities have simply stopped raising the flag over schools and municipal buildings. All three of the state’s historical black colleges have also ceased flying the flag.

Now, a Jackson resident is gathering signatures for a change-the-flag referendum, even as flag supporters vow to have their own referendum ready.

Meanwhile, Ole Miss, the state’s flagship university in Oxford, has seen some of the most heated debates, as its myriad Southern traditions and symbols have come under fire amid a building concern that Mississippi is handicapping itself by refusing to reckon with its storied, complex, and often violent, past.

The Ole Miss Associated Student Body Senate plans to vote as early as Tuesday on a resolution asking the university to “cease flying the Mississippi state flag.” 

“We feel The University of Mississippi is taking inefficient steps to remove itself from this divisive symbol that claims to represent our state but really fragments and divides us,” the resolution’s sponsor, student Allen Coon, said.

Mississippi has long struggled to improve its image, its economy, and its below-average schools. It is the poorest state in the nation, with nearly 1 in 3 of its children living below the poverty line. 

"There's no doubt that we made our own bed and that Mississippi has been its own worst enemy,” Jackson advertising executive Rick Looser has said.

But many Mississippians have long contended that harsh stereotypes of the Magnolia State are simply wrong. For one, many flag supporters say Mississippians, by a margin of 2 to 1, voted in a 2001 referendum to keep the flag, as is. Moreover, the vote in several majority-black precincts were nearly split, suggesting that at least some black residents supported keeping the battle flag motif.

“It is frustrating that the United States as a whole lumps us all as a bunch of ignorant racists who are uneducated and don’t have shoes and go around having stereotypes about everybody else,” Bess Averett, director of the Southern Cultural Heritage Foundation in Vicksburg, Miss., told The Christian Science Monitor in 2006. “Hey, we have cars and trains like everyone else, so we could leave if we wanted.”

Yet after the Charleston massacre, it’s clear that questions are growing about why Mississippi should wave a flag that's considered offensive to many of the state’s black residents – who make up 40 percent of the population.

Robert Gray, a Mississippi truck driver who won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, told the AP that the flag is like a warning label on a consumer product.

What’s inarguable is that Mississippians have begun a debate that’s as much about self-determination as self-reflection.

"There are many different opinions about what the flag stands for," Jim Borsig, a college administrator, told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. "A good public discussion is really how to engage in a public debate over the future of the state."

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