August 28, 2017 10:12:41 AM
OXFORD -- People opposed to changing Mississippi's flag are standing on at least five false premises.
Now I know, I know. People are sick of hearing about the flag. Sorry, but it will be a bone of contention for the foreseeable future. It deserves thought, not rage.
Premise 1: People like U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and others in that awful "something for nothing" civil rights crowd are the prime agitators.
It's true that Thompson, the state's longest-serving and only Democrat in the U.S. House, has never liked the flag. Ask him and he will tell you. He has, however, never said much on the topic.
So, who has?
Blake Wilson, recently retired as the widely respected president and CEO of the state's largest private business development organization, was a source in The Atlantic magazine edition of June 23, 2015. The article was about the 2001 campaign to change flags and the nonbinding referendum on what voters wanted to do.
"The 2001 effort to replace the flag was led by the Mississippi Economic Council, an association representing state businesses," the article said. "The council argued that the Confederate symbol has hurt the state's economy, scaring away companies that might want to move to Mississippi."
Quoting Wilson: "We still hold that position. There's no question about it: This is an offensive symbol to a large part of our population."
Analysis of the 2001 results did show 95 percent of African-American Mississippians who voted supported changing the flag and 90 percent of white Mississippians favored the current flag, adopted in 1894, but the racial divide doesn't tell the whole story -- at least not quite.
Take one Delta county, Sunflower, which is 73 percent African-American. The vote there was 3,504 for a new flag. Fast forward to second campaign of Barack Obama. The vote was 8,200 to re-elect the president. The analysis is easy: Most African-American Mississippians don't like the flag, but it's wrong to blame them for kindling the matter when it was a bunch of white businessmen.
Premise 2: History is misunderstood by those seeking change.
Actually, selected facts give traction to both sides, so there's nothing really to flesh out. Consider this for context: When people heard "Apple," in the 1970s, the resulting mental link was to the Beatles' record label. Say "Apple" today and it's a computer. Whatever the Cross of St. Andrew or the Southern Cross meant in days of yore, it doesn't mean that today.
Premise 3: The voting public should decide.
It could be argued that the 2001 referendum validated the 1894 Legislature's adoption of the flag that harked back 30 years to the Confederacy. But in the larger context, there's probably not a single state flag in America chosen by popular vote. There was no popular vote on the U.S. Constitution or the Mississippi Constitution, no vote to allow women to vote. There was no vote to declare American independence in 1776.
Premise 4. The flag protects "our heritage."
This presumes it is a duty of the state to respect personal sentiment. And it's just not. Define the only purpose of every flag designed and flown in all of human history. They are all symbols to identify and unify. In the much-cited 2001 vote, 36 percent of voters wanted change. It just can't be argued that Mississippi's flag is doing what a flag is supposed to do when one of every three voters wants it changed.
Too, no one is talking about a ban. German citizens cannot display the swastika, but in Mississippi people can display whatever they want to display, including the swastika.
Premise 5. "If we give them this, 'they' will just want something else."
That's the most blatantly racist premise. It imagines two separate and unequal groups, givers and takers. It equates change with surrender, giving in, of saying white Mississippians are admitting some kind of guilt. The far, far better view, of course, is that change is a gift the entire state could give itself.
Finally and significantly, the truth is that the flag is nothing more than a straw man, a focal point for the frustration people feel against a rising tide of people who feel entitled, people who trash history and haven't worked for what they have.
Maybe there's no reason to change the flag, maybe there is.
Why not ask Jefferson Davis? He said, "To one who loves his country in all its parts, it is natural to rejoice in whatever contributes to the prosperity and honor and marks the stability and progress of any portion of its people."
Charlie Mitchell is an associate dean of journalism at the University of Mississippi. Email reaches him at [email protected]
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