A recent petition that received more than 64,088 signatures on Moveon.org exemplifies a movement that the University of Mississippi began almost 20 years ago.
Discussion of the removal of the Confederate symbol from the Mississippi state flag has recently resurfaced following the massacre of nine African-Americans in a South Carolina church. Following the incident, those who saw the flag as a symbol of oppression created a petition that ignited the issue in many states across the South.
In Mississippi, House Speaker Philip Gunn supported the removal of the Confederate flag; however, Governor Phil Bryant said on Thursday that he would not call a special session to consider the redesign of the Mississippi flag.
Sen. Roger Wicker released a statement Wednesday saying that he believed the flag should be “replaced by one that is more unifying to all Mississippians.”
Interim chancellor Morris Stocks issued a statement Tuesday in which he said the university came to the realization years ago that the Confederate flag did not represent the core values of respect and civility for others. Mississippi State President Mark Keenum said his university, too, overwhelmingly supports a new state flag.
There have been dissenters to such a proposition. State Senator Melanie Sojourner posted a rebuttal to her Facebook page Saturday that said, “The flag was no more the ‘source’ of horrible acts against mankind than a gun is the ‘source’ of someone’s death. The ‘source’ is the hatred and evil that resides in the hearts of some who live and have lived among us. We all have a responsibility to make certain that it is the ‘source’ we address and not place blame on something that alone could do no harm. Simply placing blame on something that some see as a symbol only perpetuates the problem.”
Donald Cole, vice chancellor for academic affairs and assistant to the chancellor for multicultural affairs, said the university has served as a petri dish of sorts for what happens when an institution distances itself from divisive symbols.
“It took bold leadership at that time by our chancellor to disassociate from the flag. But that’s what leaders do,” Cole said. “We are a much better university because of that. And we could be a much better state because of it.”
Charles Ross, director of African American studies at Ole Miss, said he would not display the current flag in his yard.
“When the decision was made to incorporate the Confederate flag as a part of the Mississippi state flag, for all practical purposes, African Americans were not viewed as full citizens,” Ross said. “When you have the Confederate flag displayed and somebody from the outside looks and sees some of the superficial images connected to the state, they say ‘They haven’t changed a bit.’”
Ross said Mississippi has made significant changes, and it deserves a flag that symbolizes that.
“We’ve made a lot of progress as a state. In some ways, we’ve done some things very well that other states have not done,” Ross said. “The flag, by being changed and removed, will illustrate that Mississippi is trying to move and to rectify its past legitimately.”
Ross said many who disagree say the Confederate flag is a representation of heritage and pride, but that is rooted in the division of the North and South, the division between people.
“It is a symbol that was tied to slavery,” Ross said. “Thousands of people fought to defend slavery and they took the Confederate Flag with them.”
Ross said to change the flag would give people – particularly African Americans – something to be proud of about Mississippi and would begin a positive conversation about race relations in Mississippi.
Cole said the flag has served its purpose, but that it is now time to move to a new purpose, one that represents the whole of Mississippi, not just a part.
“People are reevaluating the flag and what it means,” Cole said. “We’re not saying to abandon the flag. We’re saying, ‘Let’s put it in perspective.’ Let’s put it in museums, where it belongs. But let’s get something that represents the whole of the state, not part of the state.”
Cole said the removal of the flag would be a gesture towards common ground for all Mississippians.
“I’m always convinced that Mississippi, particularly in race relations, can lead the nation,” Cole said. “We’re in the Deep South. If we were to remove it, people would listen. It’s pretty obvious that other states are moving already.”
Continuing to use the current flag would reinforce the misconception of Mississippi and its inhabitants, according to Cole.
“We’re bringing forth a new Mississippi,” Cole said. “We have symbolism that’s representing the Mississippi of the 1800s. That’s backwards symbolism, and it doesn’t represent us as a people very well. It just makes sense to change.”