CLEVELAND – In its continuing effort to foster a better understanding of different perspectives in the state, the Mississippi Humanities Council returned here Monday evening to discuss the hot button topic of the state flag.
Last Fall, Cleveland hosted the first traveling Ideas on Tap, a series of humanities-based community discussions about relevant and important issues in Mississippi.
Since launching the initiative in 2016, Caroline Gillepsie, Program Officer for the Mississippi Humanities Council, said they’ve done Ideas on Tap once a month in Jackson and expanded to Oxford this Spring.
State Rep. Abe Hudson, Jr. said he reached out to the council because he wanted to bring the flag discussion here.
Three panelists, Hudson, State Rep. Dana Criswell, and historian Dr. Charles Westmoreland expressed strong feelings of pride and tradition around the state flag as well as the offensive nature of the flag’s historical context to many.
A Confederate battle emblem in a corner of the flag has long sparked controversy, with opponents saying the symbol is racist while many of its supporters say it represents the history of the state.
“The Confederate battle flag that is a part of our flag today has its roots in military necessity, it has deep roots in the government that separated itself from the United States of America with the explicit purpose of defending the institution of slavery,” said Westmoreland.
Criswell said this is the exact reason for keeping the current state flag, ensuring that his children can learn from this history.
“We listen to this history and the fact is we cannot find in all of history a people in our nation that has not had some horrible tragedies in their past,” he said. “No matter where your ancestors are from, they probably enslaved some other group.”
The state can not run from its history or pretend that it doesn’t exist, Criswell said.
Hudson emphasized that a separate government departing from the United States to defend slavery is quite offensive, especially for those who continue to fly the flag knowing its history.
“I think you have several people who feel one way about the symbol and others who feel another and you never can get to that place of unity,” said Hudson. “Unfortunately, it’s being passed down from generation to generation to generation.”
The discussion, attended by about 30 residents, did not alter views on the flag.
However, Criswell did say to Hudson, “Me personally knowing you would get me the closest to voting to change the flag. You can talk about the good and bad, the history of the Confederacy, and I’m probably not gonna change my mind, but what will change my mind is the personal relationships.”
He said he felt the responsibility to change the flag is up to the universities, cities and its citizens.
“I’ll say when the flag is changed, if it is changed by the people, it’ll come off the front of my truck. It doesn’t mean I’m going to vote for that, … and if Abe wins the hearts and minds of people and change the flag, I’ll change the flag on the front of my truck.”
Hudson said this conversation had made him excited to have more needed conversations like these across the state.
“… No way was I expecting you to come and change your mind, but I do believe from hearing some of the comments you made, even though we have different perspectives about the way we perceive the past, I sense there is a part of you that knows this is the right thing to do,” he said.
Stuart Rockoff, Executive Director of the Mississippi Humanities Council, served as a neutral moderator for the discussion.
In order to make events like the dialogue on the state flag happen, the Mississippi Humanities Council needs partners to figure out which communities to visit and what topics to discuss, he said.
“One thing we don’t want to do is go to a community and say this is the topic we want y’all to discuss,” Rockoff said. “So we look for partners who are interested in the format, interested in the idea behind our program, and want to bring people together to discuss issues of local concern.”
And the discussions don’t always have to be as argumentative as the state flag.
For example, next month, there will be a discussion in Hattiesburg in partnership with professors and the community focused on development and how it’s shaping the community there, said Gillepsie. “Its all about all the cool things happening in Hattiesburg and keeping an eye on it and wondering what the effects are on the people there,” she said.
“Its an interesting topic that’s going to be super important to the people in Hattiesburg and specific to them, but its something they wanted to talk about and we felt it was something great to do.”
Starkville is another destination place for next month where they will talk about how to engage young people in the political process – as voters and elected officials – in partnership with the Stennis Center for Public Service Leadership.
This environment isn’t encouraging millennials to stay here and debating “if a piece of cloth changing to something that would unify and be more inclusive, something we could do to keep those young people here to unify more” should be a conversation all people should participate in, said Hudson.
He went on to say that there’s so much to gain by changing the flag from an economic standpoint. Filmmakers and other entities refuse to conduct business in the state due to outsider’s views of the magnolia state.
Perception matters, said Westmoreland.
Delta State has a world class aquatic center and two NCAA swimming and diving championships, but because the state hasn’t taken down the flag, NCAA made a decision to not host events here, he said.
“I would love to see the NCAA swimming and diving championship at my university. I would love to see the hotels flooded with people … economic impact is difficult but we are Mississippi no matter what people see, we are not an island.”
Criswell said he dismisses anything from “stupid, uneducated people” who use the flag for racism and he doesn’t care what they think.
In 2001, a referendum on the state flag was forced to a vote by the people and passed by 2-1 margin, where 64 percent of voters affirmed the current state flag design.
“I believe there’s a whole new generation of Mississippians out there who didn’t get to vote then who deserve to vote now if we took that route,” said Hudson. But, he said he doesn’t think there is enough people excited about a referendum to make it happen and they are costly.
And, waiting for the Legislature to pass legislation to put this to a vote is never going to happen, said Criswell.
“On both sides of the aisle, those who are for keeping the flag and those who are against it, don’t want another vote because they are afraid of what’s going to happen. … Politicians in Jackson want everything to be quiet and stay how it is.”
Recent acts around the country have started a movement to tear down Confederate monuments, most notably in Jackson where the name of an elementary school was changed from Jefferson Davis to Barack Obama. So should every slave owner, white supremacist or segregationist’s name be removed from monuments and buildings?
That’s not reasonable, said Westmoreland, but he said something to think about is, do they glorify the Confederacy? Or is it public commemoration of our history?
“I think we’re often confusing commemoration and memory with history,” he said. “The flag is more of a specific form of memory and commemoration that applies to primarily one group of people and leaves out many others.”
Hudson said the statues and monuments are plausible conversations to have, but the main thing right now is to focus on the state flag.