Local senate candidates respond to flag issue

Published 12:06 am Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Ricky Smith, owner of the Natchez Antiques and Mall, proudly hangs the state flag of Mississippi and does not intend to take it down. On Monday, Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn called for the removal of the Confederate emblem from Mississippi’s flag. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

Ricky Smith, owner of the Natchez Antiques and Mall, proudly hangs the state flag of Mississippi and does not intend to take it down. On Monday, Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn called for the removal of the Confederate emblem from Mississippi’s flag. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

NATCHEZ — In the aftermath of the racially motivated killing of nine Charleston, S.C., churchgoers, the state’s Republican Gov. Nikki Haley followed the lead of national political leaders, who over the weekend called for the removal of the Confederate battle flag, which flies daily over the South Carolina capitol.

Several powerful Republican leaders, such as Mitt Romney and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, said over the weekend the time for the flag’s removal had come.

On Twitter on Saturday, Romney tweeted, “Take down the #ConfederateFlag at the SC Capitol. To many, it’s a symbol of racial hatred. Remove it now to honor #Charleston victims.”

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Melanie Sojourner of Natchez, who represents District 37 — including Natchez and Adams County — in the Mississippi state senate, reacted in a Facebook post on Saturday to Romney’s call to remove the flag.

“Mitt Romney’s call to action regarding the flying of one of this nation’s historical flags is an example of what is wrong with society today,” Sojourner wrote on Facebook. She shared her post with the entire Facebook public.

“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,” she wrote. “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.”

On Tuesday, Sojourner said she was working on a press release to clarify her statement.

“One of the things I’m struggling with here is trying to get the words right,” she said. “The very worst display of government that we’ve every seen in this country is the institution of slavery. It’s one of the most horrific tragedies to ever occur in this country. Slavery of any individual…nothing is worse than the act of slavery.”

However, Sojourner said the Civil War was about much more than the issue of slavery.

“Slavery was the big issue of the day, but the war was about lots of issues, including taxation, land ownership and representation of the people. All states had differing opinions on those things, very similar to today.

“We have surrendered and allowed that flag to be hijacked by all of the horrible, horrible groups basically thriving off of racism and hatred,” Sojourner said. “That flag has this original meaning, and we are not going to yield on the premise of hate and take it to mean something else. I think that’s what the majority of Mississippians felt when they voted to keep the Mississippi flag.”

Mississippians voted by a 2-1 margin in 2001 to keep the design of its state flag in use since 1894, which has the Confederate symbol in one corner.

Sojourner said she was devastated by the deaths in Charleston.

“I was crushed on what we saw happen to those in that church, but my heart found much hope. You saw what the people in that church did. They welcomed him into their church and he killed them in such a horrific way. And what did the family members do? They told him, ‘I forgive you,’ and said we must heal. I said we’ve seen the very worst and the very best of the human spirit in Charleston.

“We have to focus on what was in that man’s heart to cause him to be that way, not just follow a political agenda. It is very personal and I’m very passionate about it,” she said.

Sojourner’s Democratic challenger in the upcoming general election, Bob M. Dearing, said the Confederate flag issue is “a no-win situation.”

“The Confederate flag, in my humble opinion, is not just a symbol of the Confederacy, but a symbol of the South. I don’t have a problem with people flying it at all,” Dearing said.

However, he said he sympathizes with those who see the flag as a reminder of a hateful, oppressive time.

“I do sympathize with them. There are so many people in the African-American community who see it like that. I don’t know what I would tell them, other than I sympathize with them,” Dearing said. “I don’t fly one myself. I don’t know what else I would tell them.”

Dearing said the issue of whether the Mississippi state flag should be redesigned to remove the similarity to the Confederate flag is “behind us. We voted on that a long time ago. People voted to keep what we got.”

Lane Reed, Meadville mayor, is challenging Sojourner in the Republican primary. Reed said he doesn’t have an opinion on whether the Confederate battle flag should fly.

“I really don’t have an opinion about that issue because it doesn’t affect jobs and economic development in southwest Mississippi. This is a red herring,” Reed said. “It’s not an issue that is important in this race at all.”

Curtis Moroney of Natchez, also challenging Sojourner in the Republican primary, said he thinks, in a sense, Sojourner’s opinion is correct.

“You know, I’m not real sure how I feel about this,” Moroney said. “It’s a very difficult thing to address because everyone has their opinion. No matter what you say, no matter what your opinion is, everyone else has theirs and all you are going to do is anger half of the people out there. What Melanie said about the flag itself is correct. The flag itself does not cause harm. It’s the people’s perception, what it represents, that is different for different people.”

Moroney said removing the flag would not solve the greater issues of racism.

“I do understand those who have a terrible distaste for that flag, and I understand why they do,” he said. “If the flag does come down, I hope that it satisfies people and they feel better about something, but I don’t think it will solve a lot of problems. We have problems on both sides. Everybody’s guilty and everybody’s innocent. It’s all in how we perceive a situation. Nobody really wants to try and understand how the other side feels.”

Etta Batteaste-Taplin, who is a Democrat challenger for the District 37 state senate seat, said Mississippi needs to take another look at its flag design.

“The flag is a symbol of the state in which it flies over and as we all know the Confederate flag has been a constant reminder of the dark history of our state. I feel that the removal of the flag will be an act of progress for the state of Mississippi,” Batteaste-Taplin said.