The Confederate battle flag may have lost its place at the South Carolina State House grounds, but the fight to keep it flying appears far from over.
From Florida to Maryland and across the Deep South, the debate around what the banner represents – a discussion fired by a racially charged massacre in Charleston in June – has divided Americans: Some see the flag as a vital part of the country’s history, while others have decried the symbol as a relic of the Civil War and the South’s racist past.
The split is especially stark in Mississippi, the heart of the Deep South and whose state flag is the only one that incorporates the “rebel X” Confederate insignia – Georgia changed it's flag to eliminate the Southern Cross in 2001. In a telling snapshot, the city of Hattiesburg, located in the southern part of the state, has removed all state flags from city buildings. Less than three miles away, the town of Petal has done the exact opposite and voted to fly the state flag at all of its city buildings.
The divide is reflected in Mississippi’s government as well. The state’s Republican governor, Phil Bryant, has refused to call a special legislative session to address the issue, resisting calls to do so from leading state officials, Reuters reported.
Yet shortly after the South Carolina shooting, Philip Gunn, the Republican speaker of the state House, called for the Confederate emblem’s removal from the state flag, as the Monitor previously reported.
“We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us,” Speaker Gunn said in a statement. “As a Christian, I believe our state’s flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed. We need to begin having conversations about changing Mississippi’s flag.”
Republican national committeeman Henry Barbour, who is from Mississippi, voiced his agreement.
“How can we keep things the same?” he tweeted after Gunn issued his statement. “The flag didn't cause Charleston, but it represents hatred to many, especially our black brothers and sisters.”
Advocates of the flag in Mississippi point to the state’s 2001 referendum, when residents overwhelmingly voted to keep the current state flag’s design, and argue that symbols don’t cause people to do evil things.
“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 wrote on her Facebook page. “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.”
Elsewhere, the debate rages on. In South Carolina, legislators spent 13 hours discussing what to do about the flag before finally deciding early Thursday to remove it from the capitol grounds, where it had flown for half a century. Alabama and other municipalities have taken similar steps following the June 17 massacre.
But the flag’s supporters continue to push back. In Ocala, Fla., an eight-mile convoy of pickups, motorcycles, and cars wound through the town Sunday in a show of support for the banner that locals dubbed the “Florida Southern Pride Ride.” Police estimated that more than 1,500 vehicles and 4,500 people, insisting the flag is an honorable symbol of regional pride and a mark of respect for Southern soldiers who died in the American Civil War, were present for the march.
“A backlash is beginning,” Ben Jones, a spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which represents 30,000 descendants of Confederate soldiers, told Reuters. “We are putting flags out. Everyone time one is taken down, we put five or six of them up.”
This report contains material from Reuters.