On April 17th, Mississippi voters get to approve or reject a new state flag design. But what happens to the state if Mississippians vote to retain the old flag design, Confederate imagery and all?
“As an African-American, I for one do not want our Southern history to be forgotten, so much of it has been shaped by the struggles and persecutions of my forefathers and mothers,” said Benny Walls of Oxford, an entrepreneurial consultant. “However, when it comes to the relics of our past, all things have their appropriate places which allow for the dignity of some to be honored and the feelings of others to be respected. Such is the case with the 1894 flag.”
When asked specifically what difference it would make to the business community “to be stuck with the old flag and its Confederate imagery,” no one interviewed for this story answered specifically, but instead talked about what the issue represented.
“So much of our state’s future waves in the balance with this issue,” Walls said. “It is possible that how Mississippians are viewed by others will be associated with how we as a community deal with this issue. As I have often heard others say, there are reasons why Mississippi ranks so low in many areas related to education and business.”
In January, Mississippi lawmakers passed House Bill 524, authored principally by House Speaker Tim Ford (D-Pontotoc) and quickly signed by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, which would allow a special referendum vote by Mississippians on April 17. The special election could cost up to $2 million.
A 17-member gubernatorial commission, led by former Gov. William Winter, recommended replacing the battle emblem with a circle of 20 stars, representing Mississippi as the 20th state to join the Union. A Mississippi Supreme Court ruling last May that indicated the current flag was not constitutionally valid spurred the action.
At stake: determining if the Confederate battle emblem in the upper left corner remains on the state flag that was designated in 1894, or if the circle of stars on a blue field in the upper left corner will become the state’s new flag design. Before the commission agreed on the starry pattern, Winter said a five-member design committee reviewed more than 1,200 proposed designs.
“I have discussed the flag issue with several friends (and) they generally agree with me that, to us, it’s really a non-issue,” said Harold Ingram, president of PerforMax Inc., a medical staffing service in Jackson. “Whether or not we have a new flag or retain the old one will not determine the true character of the state. Since I am not black, there is no way I can fully appreciate the emotions that may be evoked surrounding the flag. If I vote on it, I will probably vote for the new design.”
Ingram, who lives in a racially-mixed neighborhood, said the Mississippi flag was not a major issue until South Carolina’s flag became embroiled in state politics and received media attention. Following suit from other southern states, the Georgia senate voted 34-22 to reduce the state flag’s Confederate emblem to a miniature symbol in January.
“The bottom line is that the flag issue here is not really about correcting something that is wrong,” Ingram said. “It’s about politics. The issue about the flag simply underscores the problems we face concerning our socio-political environment. This issue is not about fairness. It’s not about equality. It’s about the exploitation of an emotional issue for the benefit of those who have established dissension and division as a profession.”
Earlier in the legislative session, Gov. Ronnie Musgrove endorsed the election, but would not comment on which flag design he supported. When he finally said he preferred the new flag design, Secretary of State Eric Clark, Insurance Commissioner George Dale, State Treasurer Marshall Bennett, Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell and Attorney General Mike Moore publicly supported him.
On April 2nd, Musgrove told a racially-mixed church congregation at Wells United Methodist Church in Jackson that supporting the new flag was “the right thing for our state.”
The MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce, Mississippi Economic Council, Mississippi Manufacturers Association, Mississippi Bankers Association and presidents of Mississippi’s eight state universities have said they support a new state flag.
Another statewide business group, the Mississippi Economic Development Council (MEDC), echoed their support of a new state flag late last month.
“Mississippi’s development future is at a critical juncture and the nation is watching us,” said Jerry G. Acy, CED, president of MEDC. “We are making major strides in development, not just industrial development but also community development. The MEDC board wants to see this trend continue without any distractions.”
Another factor: if voters approve the new flag design, it would represent an economic boom to flag dealers, who typically sell three-by-five-foot flags for around $40. Several flag dealers have already sold several flags with the new design, in anticipation of the change — or as a political souvenir.
For some Mississippians, the 1894 flag represents a heritage and history of which they are proud. For others, it symbolizes a hurtful image of racism and slavery.
“I am becoming increasingly irritated when every time I turn on the news or read the paper, I am faced with racially-based issues,” Ingram said. “I employ and work with a number of different minorities. I measure them by their performance just like I do everyone else. Color is not an issue. In fact, I deplore the term ‘African-American.’
Focusing on divisive issues such as the flag and separating into color camps only serves to impede assimilation.”
According to recent statewide polls, more than half of Mississippi voters- including a significant percentage of blacks — strongly favored keeping the 1894 state flag over adopting a new one.
“Not handling righteously this flag issue will only be another notch against us as a backwards-thinking people holding on to things that garner frustration rather than freedom,” Walls said. “This makes the state unattractive to non-Mississippians, creates stereotypes that do not well speak of all its people and causes some to leave, taking with them their talents, skills, wisdom and heritage. No stick with colored cloth can be that important to potentially perpetuate so much discontent and harm.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 853-3967.