Prominent former and current residents of Mississippi have joined together to urge the state to change its flag, which currently still encompasses a Confederate emblem. On Sunday, the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger published a full-page letter signed by 64 notable people, including former Mississippi State Rep. John Grisham, Morgan Freeman, Archie Manning and Jimmy Buffett.
According to the letter, “It is simply not fair, or honorable, to ask black Mississippians to attend schools, compete in athletic events, work in the public sector, serve in the National Guard, and go about their normal lives with a state flag that glorifies a war fought to keep their ancestors enslaved.”
State Sen. John Horhn also weighed in and described the emblem in his state’s flag as “a turnoff.”
“The tide is turning with business leadership saying it hurts our ability to recruit corporations and with coaches saying it hurts our ability to recruit athletes,” he said.
Debates on what the Confederate flag symbolizes sparked across the country following the Charleston, S.C., massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June that left nine Black churchgoers dead. Pictures of the shooter with Confederate flags and memorabilia surfaced after the attack which was ultimately deemed a hate crime.
Around the country, Confederate flags and related products began disappearing. Major retailers, including Walmart (one of DiversityInc’s 2015 Noteworthy Companies), Sears, eBay and Amazon, removed Confederate flags and merchandise from their stores. Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said of the items, “We just don’t want to sell products that make anyone feel uncomfortable and we felt like that was the case.”
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley also quickly called for the flag’s removal from the South Carolina Capitol; following speedy votes from the Senate and House, the flag came down on July 10. Sunday’s letter referenced the state’s decision and suggested that Mississippi follow South Carolina’s lead for a second pivotal time:
Last month, the South Carolina legislature set aside party differences and voted to remove a Confederate battle flag from the capitol grounds in Columbia. This was not the official state flag, nor had it flown gallantly over the statehouse since the Civil War. Rather, it was run up the pole in 1961 as a symbol of resistance to the civil rights movement.
This action by one of the most Southern of states should resonate in Mississippi. In 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. Twenty days later, Mississippi became the second. The time has come for Mississippi to follow South Carolina again, only now in another direction.
The call to action has been met by a great deal of resistance, notably from Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, who argued that the state already voted to keep the flag the same in 2001 incidentally, the same year Georgia opted to remove the Confederate emblem from its own state flag.
“A vast majority of Mississippians voted to keep the state’s flag,” he said, “and I don’t believe the Mississippi Legislature will act to supersede the will of the people on the issue.”
At the time, 65 percent of the state voted for keeping the original flag, while 35 percent opposed this. This vote brings a whole new issue to light. With 37 percent of the state’s population being Black, it would seem unlikely that such a vote would pass. However, strict requirements about providing government-issued identification when voting hadsignificantly hindered Black voter participation, allowing conservatives to maintain control over the state. In past years, the state used poll taxes and literacy tests in attempts to deter Blacks from voting and was also charged with voter intimidation and suppression.
Also concerning is the fact that the state has failed to elect a Black person to statewide office since reconstruction despite its significant Black population.
But if the flag was left up to vote again, it could possibly yield a different outcome. Black voter participation has been on the rise and in some states including Mississippi significantly outnumbered white voter participation, according to the Census. If this trend continues, as well as the rise of the Black population in the state, the results may show Mississippi doesn’t feel the way it did in 2001.
Many supporters of the flag describe it as a critical part of history. However, as Sunday’s letter explains, what the flag symbolized during the Civil War era is no longer inclusive of today’s population: “The Rebel Flag meant one thing to Lee and his men 150 years ago,” it says. “Today, to many, it stands for something far different.”
“It’s time for Mississippi to fly a flag for all its people,” the letter concluded.