Sports pressure shouldn’t be needed to inspire leaders to change the state flag. But it might just happen.

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Mississippi state flag

So, the NCAA announced on Friday that Mississippi teams can no longer host college baseball and basketball regionals until the state changes its flag. That’s a big deal. And it will put the Mississippi teams at a competitive disadvantage. It’s bad for our universities, for our athletes, for our fans, for everybody.

That comes a day after the Southeastern Conference joined an ever-growing list of organizations that openly oppose any semblance of the Confederate battle flag. You know, the one that takes up the upper corner of the Mississippi state flag and the one that flies at Ku Klux Klan and Skinhead rallies.

Mississippi State and Ole Miss, the two SEC schools in Mississippi, refuse to fly the state flag. So do the other six state-supported universities. So do the cities of Oxford and Starkville. Hattiesburg, too. Jackson, the state’s largest city won’t fly the flag. It came down this week in Gulfport, the second most populated Mississippi city.

Rick Cleveland

Question: What good is a state flag if so many won’t fly it?

All other southern states have cut ties with the Confederate battle flag. NASCAR, which has been a haven for Confederate flags throughout its history, has banned the banner. Here in Mississippi this week, the Delta Council, which opposed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, came out in favor of changing the flag.

There’s more.

The NCAA announcement came after a group of former Mississippi college athletes Thursday petitioned the NCAA to stop holding post-season events until the state changes its flag. It shouldn’t take sports to influence our legislature and governor to change our archaic flag. But if that’s what it takes, so be it.

It’s time, Mississippi. More to the point, it’s past time.

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Long-time readers know where I side on this Mississippi flag controversy. And the fact is, I don’t want to change the flag because of how those outside the state perceive us. I want to change the flag because it is the right thing to do. In 2015, I signed a letter in a full page ad in the Clarion Ledger petitioning for flag change, along with many of the state’s sports heroes, coaches, athletic directors, writers, performers, educators and business leaders. Archie Manning signed it. So did Bailey Howell. So did Boo Ferriss, Jimmy Buffett, John Grisham, Morgan Freeman, Richard Ford, William Winter and many others.

The letter in the ad told of the history of the Confederate battle flag and the Mississippi state flag. How the battle flew over Rebel forces in the Civil War. “The Rebel flag was never meant to fly over state capitols. It was a battle flag, usually carried by a color sergeant at the head of a regiment. With its bright red background and blue ‘southern cross,’ it was meant to be seen through the smoke of battle and to serve as a rallying point. …Thirty years later, in 1894, Mississippi redesigned its flag and incorporated the Rebel emblem in its canton.”

Important to note, there was no vote to change the flag back then. The Legislature passed a bill to change the flag and Gov. John Marshall Stone, a Confederate veteran, signed off on it.

And so it has remained. In 2001, a state referendum was held and Mississippi voters overwhelmingly rejected a clumsy design in favor of the old flag. I wrote a column prior to that referendum stating my thoughts on why we needed a new flag. “Many old flag supporters talk about supporting our heritage. Whose heritage? Look around. One out of every three of us (it is now more) is black. My great grandfather fought for the Confederacy, but my Mississippi heritage is more about manners and civility – about treating people the way I want to be treated – than a piece a cloth. Anything that offends so many Mississippians offends me.”

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The old flag is coming down – if not in this session of the Legislature, then some day soon. It will eventually happen because it is the right thing to do. I don’t know how another referendum would go. I do know that many minds have changed over 19 years, and I do know that many of today’s voters hadn’t even been born in 2001.

I also know it doesn’t have to come down to a referendum. Three men – Tate Reeves, Delbert Hoseman and Philip Gunn – can make it happen. And all three know it is the right thing to do, that the state would surely benefit from a change. The Confederate battle flag, in any form, has no place other than a museum in 2020.

In 1865, in surrender, Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate army, told his soldiers, “It’s time to furl the flag boys.”

Folks, that was 155 years ago.