The Mississippi state flag flies at the state Capitol. Credit: Fred Anklam Jr., Mississippi Today

Three long-time, high-ranking campus leaders at Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Southern Miss, all retired, are reaching out to former students and alumni, asking them to strongly advocate to change the Mississippi state flag.

Sparky Reardon, Dean of Students Emeritus at Ole Miss; Jimmy Abraham, former vice president for student affairs and Alumni Association Executive Director at Mississippi State; and Joe Paul, Vice President for Student Affairs Emeritus at USM have written a letter to their former students, which they have published on various social media platforms.

“The three of us have over 100 years of combined experience in working with college students at Mississippi’s three largest universities,” they wrote. “We live in a state with great potential and you are that potential. While Mississippi has come a long way from its tumultuous past, we still have a long way to go.

“At Southern Miss, State, and Ole Miss, we served as your advocates. We are now asking and encouraging you to advocate for the state of Mississippi by involving yourselves in changing the state flag. It’s time.”

University leaders ask to change the flag (Text)

All three men are Mississippi natives, Paul from Bay St. Louis and both Reardon and Abraham from Clarksdale. All three said Tuesday afternoon that immediate response from former students has been exceedingly positive.

“I’ve had nothing but appreciation for the letter,” Abraham said.

“Overwhelmingly positive response from my former students,” Paul said.

“It’s pretty obvious from the former students I have heard from that they understand how badly our state needs a new emblem we can all rally around,” Reardon said. “It’s time to move forward.”

Paul says he is often introduced to alumni of the other schools as “the Jimmy Abraham or Sparky Reardon of Southern Miss.” Both Reardon and Abraham say they have experienced similar introductions. Abraham, Paul and Reardon say they have collaborated often in the past, having shared goals and problems. “In the process we’ve become close friends,” Reardon said. “I know how much Joe Paul is beloved at Southern Miss and the former State students I know would take a bullet for Jimmy Abraham. I’m proud to share this mission with the two of them.”

The current state flag, adopted in 1894, is the only remaining state flag that includes the Confederate battle flag emblem. The flag has not been flown at any of the eight state-supported universities since 2016. In 2017, the Mississippi House rejected an effort to penalize the universities for not flying the state flag.

Several Mississippi lawmakers, with Speaker of the House Philip Gunn’s blessing, are making a push to change the state’s flags in the current session of the legislature. The legislative talks come as tens of thousands of black Mississippians and their multi-racial allies have protested in recent days, demanding leaders address racial inequities in government.

Said Paul, “We have a state flag so shameful our universities won’t even fly it. Through the years, our student leaders have done some amazing things to effect positive change on our campuses. They were leaders on our campuses and have become leaders in the state. We know what they are capable of. The beauty of our work is that we get to see what these folks go out and do.”

“Now is the time to get involved,” the letter says. “Contact state officials, specifically the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the house, and your state legislators. Express to them about how you feel that it’s time to change the flag.  Work within your arenas of influence to build momentum to make the change. Choose to display one of the alternative proposed state flags. Start or sign existing petitions to be sent to our leaders. Take to social media pushing for change. Support businesses that fly an alternative flag.

“We know you have the power to make change one voice at a time. You changed each of us in many ways for the better. You changed our campuses for the better. You can change the flag and in turn help send a message that Mississippi is a place that respects all of her people.”

Said Reardon: “Many of the students on our campuses now weren’t even born when we had a vote on the flag in 2001. So many of our alumni then weren’t old enough to vote. It’s a different Mississippi in 2020. It’s time for change.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.