State flag issue needs more attention

Published 12:03 am Sunday, May 22, 2011

Ten years after Mississippians overwhelmingly voted to embrace the controversial state flag, state leaders remain conflicted over the issue.

In April 2001, a statewide referendum on Mississippi’s flag went to the voters.

At issue are the vestiges of the Confederate battle flag that remain in the state flag.

Their existence is history, worthy of protection and memory to some. It’s a reminder of our state’s racial path, others cry. The flag screams heritage to some, hatred to others.

The 2001 vote resulted in 64 percent of Mississippi voters saying, “Leave the flag alone, Confederate symbols and all.”

Interestingly, Adams County was one of only a handful of counties in which voters supported the creation of a new state symbol.

Fifty-two percent of Adams County voters sought a new flag. The vote should not have come as a big surprise given the economic climate at the time.

Threats of possible boycotts over the flag issue and several reports that NCAA tournaments would not be located in the state in the early 2000s because of the flag kept citizens fired up about the issue.

Back then, and probably today, too, economic developers feared an issue such as the flag could prevent businesses from relocating to the state.

We now know the flag issue hasn’t completely killed off all development in the state, but we may never know what may have been lost due to the issue.

That unknown is what led the majority of Adams County voters to support a new flag 10 years ago and why it’s clear we still need a new flag to this day.

Last week, an internal conflict over the flag issue bubbled up in the City of Natchez at, of all places, the Natchez Police Department.

Apparently, Natchez Police Chief Mike Mullins was asked if it was OK to fly the Mississippi flag at the police department. Logically, he complied and the official, controversial flag of the state was hoisted into the sky.

Eventually, someone complained to Mayor Jake Middleton, who ordered the police department to remove the flag, presumably until the city could discuss the matter more carefully.

That seems silly.

As long as the flag is the official flag of the state, cities such as Natchez should fly the flag. If the flag bothers city leaders, then rather than simply ignoring the issue by hiding the flag, why not work to generate enough public support to consider a new flag again.

Personally, the flag does not offend me. Nor does it stir massive pride in my home state. Mississippi to me means much more than any piece of cloth can contain. And in a very real way, the Mississippi that I know — the Mississippi in which I’ve grown up — is a state in constant change, a state growing into the modern world, not constantly dwelling in the distant past.

Rationally, it makes sense to find a flag that all Mississippi citizens can support and rally around.

If, as the 2001 vote indicates, more than one-third of state voters don’t support the existing flag, we should seek to find a more universally supported symbol.

Preferably that new symbol will be one that will not run the risk of potentially costing Mississippi business.

Think about how it must look to potential visitors and investors in our state to read that a mayor has to demand the police chief remove the official state flag.

We simply cannot afford that. And, I hope, Mississippians are too smart to let the issue linger another 10 years.

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or kevin.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.