The Shoofly Magazine's
Big Buzz blog
- by Ellis Anderson
While bills to change the state flag were making their way through the Mississippi legislature this week, the Bay St. Louis city council voted to stop flying the current state flag in front of City Hall.
Tuesday night, the council voted 5-2 to remove the flag, just hours after the council of neighboring city Gulfport unanimously passed a resolution to remove the flag from all city property. Gulfport is the second largest city in the state.
Statewide, the capitol city of Jackson, Oxford, Hattiesburg, Grenada and Vicksburg have taken the state flag down. Many of those made the decision in 2015, after the mass shooting in Charleston, SC.
None of Mississippi's eight public universities fly the flag.
Recent events have brought the issue to the forefront. In May, a black man named George Floyd was arrested for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill and was killed by Minneapolis police. Floyd’s murder, captured in a graphic video, led to demonstrations across the country.
[Editor's note: Hours after this story was published, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey "threatened to not host any future conference championships in Mississippi until the state changes its flag." Read the EPSN story here.]
“I think we had that flag down and somebody put it back up,” he noted. “I’ll make the motion.”
One of two dissenting councilmen, Josh Desalvo, said he was voting “no” because “I know it’s not the greatest … but as long as it’s our state flag I don’t want to vote to not fly it.”
Although recent polls show Mississippians are now evenly divided on replacing the flag, councilman Larry Smith cited the twenty-year-old referendum, when 64% of voters opted for the old flag.
“Times, they are a-changing,” he said. “But right now, we just need to keep with what we’ve got.”
In a telephone interview Thursday morning, Councilman Reed said he was “proud of the councilmen who stood up. Although they knew they would get some pushback in these sensitive times, it wasn’t a knee-jerk decision for them. It was something that needed to be done, and it was the right moment.”
Addressing the current racial climate in the country, the councilman and minister said, “There’s ignorance and there’s arrogance. Ignorance means we ignore something and don’t give our attention to it. Many don’t know the road that African Americans in this country have traveled and are still traveling. But it’s forgivable when we don’t know something.”
“Arrogance is when we don’t want to know,” Reed continued. “It’s harder to forgive when we’re arrogant and don’t want to know the pain or the road that’s been traveled. That’s a major cause of what’s happening in America today.”
Reed said he has witnessed firsthand the negative impression the state flag has made on visitors to Bay High, where his four daughters played basketball.
“The flag in the gym was one of the first things out-of-state coaches attending games would notice,” he said. “It was offensive to them and to many guests.”
Reed would like the state to adopt what’s been dubbed the Stennis flag, after its designer, Jackson artist Laurin Stennis.
In an open letter on her website, Stennis mentions the public evolution of her own family “over the generations on matters of race.” She says that the current flag has “acted as a barrier rather than a bridge to civic and economic development. … I believe Mississippians are now ready to project a more welcoming and positive image that truly reflects its people.”
An informal group supporting the Stennis flag was formed in 2017 by Bay St. Louis resident and retired insurance executive Chris Roth. The idea behind Stennis Flag Flyers was to create awareness about the new option so the switchover would be easier when the legislature was finally ready to make the jump.
Last week, the SFF website snagged nearly 20,000 readers.
Roth, a Republican, says he’s been encouraged by the recent interest and notes that almost all the feedback has been positive, with people wanting to know how they can help.
Roth was pleased with the Bay’s council vote and holds out hope that the state legislature will take action this session. However, he expressed disappointment in Lt. Gov. Delbert Hoseman. Yesterday, Hoseman assigned the bill that would change the flag to a committee where it seems sure to die without having a chance at a Senate vote.
“Yes, if the flag is changed, there will be gnashing of teeth and rending of garments and pulling out hair. Then we’d move on.”
Roth sees the flag as the state’s logo, one that’s presently not acceptable when Mississippi tries to recruit businesses, athletes and professors. A personal experience in 2017 showed him the need for a new flag and spurred the formation of Stennis Flag Flyers. Roth was competing as a swimmer in the National Senior Games. He skipped the opening ceremony where athletes fell in behind their state’s flag.
“The national light is shining brighter on systemic racism,” he said. “Hopefully, there will be enough spillover to keep up the momentum and get the flag changed. The state would advance by leaps and bounds if we’d take that action.”
Edwards has said that changing the flag isn’t equivalent to forgetting the past. He also believes that “the economic, social and moral arguments for changing our state flag are overwhelming.”
In his comments to the Shoofly Magazine yesterday, he addressed economic concerns:
“Our local leaders in government and business know that the perception of the current flag hurts us economically. It’s about lost jobs, lost visitors and lost opportunities. Some may debate the moral or historical case for changing the flag, but the economic case is very clear-cut for most of us.
“It is an issue that draws out passionate responses on both sides. For elected officials to support changing the flag, they realize there might be a political cost to pay from some of their constituents who support the flag. But our elected officials also realize there’s a tremendous cost, both socially and economically, for keeping it.”
Edwards is also a proponent of the Stennis flag, but “I’d be glad to see any acceptable replacement.”
Barabino recommended that those who still believe the Civil War was about states’ rights, and not slavery, read the Mississippi Articles of Secession. Written by the state legislature in 1861, the new Confederates plainly stated their reason for leaving the Union: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.”
Barabino pointed out that the current flag was adopted in 1894 at the beginning of the long Jim Crow era.
“If they couldn’t keep them [black people] in bondage, they could keep them psychologically in bondage. It’s there to intimidate citizens, mainly black people.”
While Barabino says he’s still researching the Stennis flag as a possible replacement, he simply wants the current one removed on a statewide level.