All my professional life I have wondered what it would take for all the universities in Mississippi to agree on any matter under the sun. Just once.

And now I know: It’s the state flag of Mississippi — specifically, the need to get rid of the current flag.

The archaic and now widely reviled 1894 flag has brought Ole Miss Rebels and Mississippi State Bulldogs, the ultimate Hatfields and McCoys, together. The Golden Eagles from Southern Miss, for once, agree with the two older universities. Historically black universities Jackson State, Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State take the same side. Mississippi College and Delta State, bitter rivals for the most part, agree. So do MUW students and grads.

Just do it, they say. Get rid of the flag that embarrasses us and holds us all back. Get rid of the flag that sends so many thousands of our smartest young people out of state to make their way in life. Get rid of the flag that limits our economic opportunities. Get rid of the flag that draws scorn from the rest of the country and the world.

Just do it. It is past time.

It most certainly is. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that sports have provided the one of the most compelling and visible reasons for change. Recent actions by the NCAA, Southeastern Conference and Conference USA, which would ban championship sporting events from the state because of the flag, have increased pressure on state leaders to change the flag. Not that the universities necessarily needed more impetus. They quit flying the flag years ago.

I have spent a lifetime covering sports in Mississippi, a state remarkably passionate about its athletic teams and its athletes. Sports are something we do quite well in Mississippi, especially for a relatively small, poor and mostly rural state. We often lead the nation in putting players into pro football and into its Pro Football Hall of Fame. Our college baseball teams are often among the nation’s best. Our citizenry attends those games in phenomenal numbers. Players and coaches come here from other states and are amazed at the passion our people have for the games.

Sports bring us together in Mississippi. Those of us who lived through the integration of our schools know this better than most. In many, many cases — and in most Mississippi towns — sports showed the way. Sports showed us, right there on the courts and fields in front of us, that black kids and white kids could play together and become better together than they had been apart. Sports showed us that the color of one’s skin is not the ultimate decider. That hard work and team work matter most.

In small towns such as Mize and Weir and Pelahatchie and Mount Olive, black and white kids came together and won big. We have watched real-life “Remember the Titans” stories across the state, and we are better for it.

We live in a state that is approximately 38 percent African American. And yet we live in a state where the state flag serves as a sad reminder of a war fought to retain the evil institution of slavery, of people owning people.

And please, don’t tell me the flag, with its Confederate battle flag emblem, represents our heritage. That’s so much bull waste. When Mississippi seceded from the United States, it did so because, as our leaders wrote: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest in the world.” It’s right there in black and white in Mississippi’s declaration of secession. Look it up.

The flag that now flies over our Capitol was designed nearly three decades after the war. It was pushed through the legislature — no referendum — after the period known as Reconstruction. It was meant to show black people who was still in charge. It was a rallying point for Jim Crow — and if you don’t know what that was, then look it up. And now that battle flag emblem has been adopted by hate groups — from the Ku Klux Klan, to Skinheads to Nazis. Nevertheless, the flag still flies over our state capitol.

Mississippi, we can do better.

We must do better. The Legislature can make this happen now. Have a backbone. Make a stand. Leave a legacy.

It is time.

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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.