Mississippi legislature should delete Confederate symbol in flag

April 29, 2001|By Loretta J. Ross

MY FAMILY was shot at in Mississippi in 1963 while moving from Virginia to Texas.

It was when my Jamaican-born father, newly retired from the Army, used a "whites only" bathroom at a filling station. When told he used the wrong bathroom, my father thought the white man meant the women's room. They scuffled. We left, a bullet chasing us down the highway.

Why doesn't Mississippi ever seem to change? The April 17 vote to retain the state flag was that of the old Mississippi, rejecting any opportunity to join the New South. Supporters of the Confederate battle flag say they are simply expressing white pride and Southern heritage.

If African-Americans can be proud of being black, why can't we be proud of being white, they ask. They confuse racial jealousy with racial pride.

The Mississippi vote used a democratic process to abuse a democratic value. The result affirmed a symbol of oppression. It reminded me of the tyranny of the majority in the South that enshrined separate and unequal laws. The U.S. Supreme Court and federal troops had to overthrow this tyranny to get civil-rights laws enforced in the 1960s.

The flag vote was as much about class warfare among whites as anything else. Grim and unconvinced rural traditionalists declared they would not be bossed by urban businessmen who organized the Mississippi Legacy Fund to support the flag change.

While the National Collegiate Athletic Association considered boycotting Mississippi if it voted to cling to the flag, this may have proved counterproductive. Mississippians didn't want to be pushed around. They are already the poorest in the United States. Threats that they would become poorer fell on deaf ears.

Of course, there were African-Americans who voted to keep the flag. Perhaps they, too, shared this resentment. Or maybe they did not think the vote was important. But it was.

Many in Mississippi have never gotten over the Civil War or the civil-rights movement. They accuse the NAACP of using the flag vote to build new barriers between the races. Former Klansman David Duke calls it the "cultural genocide" of the white race. Flag opponents were called "Afro-Racists" by one columnist.

Flag supporters say that because the flag was adopted in 1894 it was not in response to the civil rights movement. Their historical amnesia obliterates what was happening in 1894: the lynching of blacks and the resurgence of white supremacy.

They claim that the Confederate flag has been wrongly appropriated by the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and skinheads. But these defenders of Southern heritage never seem to ask why hate groups find the symbol so appropriate.

Mississippi is the only state left that prominently displays the Confederate battle symbol on its flag. Its state legislature could still change the flag, ignoring the referendum. Let's hope it does the right thing. A lot of people in the South are tired of fighting the Civil War, again, in the 21st century.

Loretta J. Ross is the founder and executive director of the National Center for Human Rights Education in Atlanta. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services

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