June 20, 2020 9:31:19 PM
The futures of the Mississippi state flag and Mississippi State University athletics -- and by extension, the city of Starkville's financial health -- are intertwined and in the hands of the state Legislature for the foreseeable future.
The NCAA, the governing body of college sports, ruled Friday that Mississippi institutions will not host regional events of any kind until the Confederate battle emblem is removed from the state flag.
"There are times when you have to be on the right side of an issue, and I think they are (at the NCAA)," Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill said. "I'm very sad that outside pressure is now coming to bear on something we should have taken care of ourselves."
The economic hit to cities like Starkville, Oxford and Hattiesburg would pile onto the existing strain caused by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Starkville implemented a series of cost-cutting measures in April, including city employee furloughs and pay cuts, to counteract the expected drop in sales tax revenue due to restricted business activity.
MSU sporting events bring in revenue for the city via its food/beverage and hotel-motel sales taxes, and tourism raises the city's profile, so the NCAA's ruling means Starkville could "lose in multiple ways," Spruill said.
"COVID is kicking our butt, and the flag is creating problems that sadly shouldn't be an issue," she said.
Where to go from here
None of Mississippi's eight public universities flies the state flag, and the executive officers of all eight schools released a joint statement Friday saying they respect the NCAA's decision.
Both MSU and Oktibbeha County facilities lowered the flag in 2016, a year after Starkville aldermen voted to do so at city properties.
Local legislators' opinions differ on who should be responsible for changing the flag, but most agree that the flag should change.
"Flags are symbols, and symbols are supposed to be lofty, high-minded, almost unattainable because of the type of ambition and purity of the spirit of the people," State Rep. Cheikh Taylor (D-Starkville) said. "But when we look at our state flag, we seem to look in the rearview mirror and we find that our past should be getting smaller and smaller as we move forward, instead of us looking out of the windshield at the big picture. That's what we're doing right now: looking at the rearview mirror and not at the windshield."
A bill to change the state flag stalled in committee and is unlikely to see a vote before the legislative session ends on June 28. Both the House and Senate would need a two-thirds majority vote to suspend the rules and revive the bill.
If no such action is taken, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves would be responsible for calling a special legislative session to address the flag issue or making legislators wait until they reconvene in January. Reeves does not support changing the flag but has expressed support for a referendum, which would allow voters to decide.
Rep. Rob Roberson (R-Starkville) said he doubts the Legislature will vote to suspend the rules but believes the NCAA's ruling could "change hearts and minds." He said he supports replacing the flag with one that "represents us all" but believes the potential "crippling" economic consequences for college towns and the state will be the deciding factor for many.
"From an economic standpoint, you don't keep something that's going to harm you," Roberson said. "As Southerners, we have a tendency to cut our nose off to spite our face when it comes to stuff like this, but I don't get the luxury of making decisions that only affect me. I have to make decisions that are going to economically affect other people."
Taylor, Rep. Kabir Karriem (D-Columbus) and state Sen. Angela Turner-Ford (D-West Point) all said the motivation to change the flag should come from a place of morality, not economic concerns, but they agreed the flag should change through any means necessary.
"For some, I don't think it's a moral issue. I hate it, but that's the reality," Turner-Ford said. "I think we all know that we cannot stand to suffer further economic blows especially in light of a global pandemic."
A public or legislative vote
Mississippi schools had already been restricted since 2001 from hosting pre-selected NCAA championships, but the new ruling bans postseason events like baseball or softball regionals or women's basketball tournament opening rounds that are earned.
Also in 2001, the decision to change the state flag came to the public in a referendum, and more than 64 percent of voters chose the current flag over an alternative design.
Rep. Dana McLean (R-Columbus), a freshman legislator elected in November, said there should be another referendum instead of a vote in the Legislature. She previously told The Dispatch she would not support a bill to change the flag but might abstain from voting on it instead of voting no.
"That was my position when I ran (for office), and I feel like I need to stand by my word," she said Friday.
McLean, Taylor, Karriem and other elected state officials spoke at Starkville's racial justice rally on June 6, the city's contribution to nationwide protests on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement. McLean, the only Republican in the group, told the audience of thousands that racial justice was not a partisan issue but a matter of "good and evil" and "right and wrong."
She told The Dispatch on Friday that her words of support were about the larger issue of injustice against Black Americans, including police brutality, and that she "wouldn't say" the question of whether to keep a Confederate symbol on the state flag is a matter of good versus evil.
However, she said the issue of student-athletes feeling safe and welcome at Mississippi colleges is "for me, the most important issue" rather than the potential economic consequences for cities like Starkville if the flag does not change.
Spruill said the Legislature should decide the flag's fate and "quit kicking the can down the road." Taylor, Karriem and Turner-Ford all agreed.
"That's what we were elected to do: to make the tough decisions," said Karriem, who is the vice chair of the Legislative Black Caucus. "I think sometimes we use referendums when we don't want to make tough decisions."
A new design or a two-flag option
Reeves said Thursday he would be open to the option of having two state flags so Mississippians can choose which one to display. McLean told The Dispatch she is open to "whatever is the best compromise," including Reeves' suggestion.
The other legislators disagree. Turner-Ford said having a second flag would likely not satisfy the NCAA's demand that Mississippi remove the existing one, and Roberson said the suggestion "would have the smell of 'separate but equal,'" the doctrine behind racial segregation in the 20th century.
Karriem said the idea of having two flags "doesn't sit well" with him because "Scripture says you can't serve two masters."
He also said the question of whether to keep or reject the current flag is a different question than what a new flag would look like. McLean agreed and said the public should vote yes or no on the current flag before voting on a new one.
"I'm not married so much to the design as to allowing the people to have the vote," she said. "Times have changed (since 2001), the demographics have changed, and hopefully people's hearts have changed too."
Turner-Ford said replacing the flag could be a "multi-stage" effort by the Legislature.
"We can vote to take the flag down, and at some point, hopefully no later than January when the Legislature reconvenes, we can be presented with an alternative design that does not include the current flag and the Legislature could vote (on it)," she said.
Roberson said the Legislature should vote yes or no on the current flag and then present new design options to the public for a vote.
"Mississippians need to have a little skin in the game and be able to choose whatever direction we go, assuming we understand that the current flag is no longer something we can support," Roberson said.
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