Reverence And Rage: Southerners Battle Over Relics Of The Confederacy
At a recent rally on the steps of the Mississippi state Capitol in Jackson, dozens of protesters shouted "Bring it down! Bring it down!" in opposition to the flag waving atop the building.
Mississippi is the only remaining U.S. state that still has obvious Confederate imagery in its state flag. The upper left corner, or canton, depicts the Confederate battle emblem — a red background with a blue "X" lined with white stars.
Ever since the man accused of killing nine African-Americans in a South Carolina church last summer was seen posing with a Confederate battle flag, there's been a movement to rethink the reverence for relics of the Old South.
Carlos Moore, an African-American lawyer from Grenada, Miss., is among the protesters in Jackson.
"I see something that stands for secession. I see something that stands for lynching. I see something that stands for slavery," he says.
Moore is suing the state over the flag design, arguing it's unconstitutional.
"The flag with that emblem is a vestige of slavery," says Moore.
His lawsuit alleges the Mississippi flag violates the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, and the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection. Moore says the flag discriminates against African-Americans, and subjects them to being second-class citizens.
Mississippi has the highest percentage of black residents of any state, at 37 percent. Moore says keeping the Confederate banner sends a clear message to the minority.
"It's not about hunting. It's not about fishing. It's not about sweet tea," he says. "It has to be about white supremacy."
The debate in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South has been building since nine people were killed in what authorities describe as a racially motivated attack on a historic black church in Charleston.
But there's also been pushback. Several state legislatures are considering "heritage protection" laws. In New Orleans, a contractor hired to remove Confederate monuments backed out of the job after employees received death threats and his car was torched.
South Carolina State Rep. Justin Bamberg came to Jackson for the rally against the state flag. He was a friend of Clementa Pinckney, the pastor and state senator killed in Charleston.
"When we lost a colleague, when we lost all these innocent people, it clicked," says Bamberg. "And they realized that this flag actually does mean hate."
If South Carolina could bring the flag down, Bamberg says, it can be done elsewhere.
Some local governments and colleges in Mississippi already have stopped flying the state flag, including the University of Mississippi, which has long struggled to reckon with Old South symbolism.
But bills to change the flag or put it to a statewide vote stalled in the Legislature, even after the Republican speaker of the House changed his position and called for the Confederate emblem to go.
Mississippi has been through this before. Fifteen years ago voters, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, decided to keep the flag. Leading the fight to preserve it was Greg Stewart, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Today, Stewart is executive director of Beauvoir on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It means "beautiful view," he says.
This sprawling estate overlooking the Gulf of Mexico was the post-civil war home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Now it's a shrine. The state and Confederate flags fly here, over the Spanish-moss draped oak trees.
"Well we lost on the battlefield," Stewart says. "But I think Jefferson Davis was the one that said 'truth, crushed to the ground, will rise again.'"
Stewart rejects the latest call for changing Mississippi's flag.
"When you're asking me to take it down because those people were so bad, those people were my ancestors," says Stewart. "And it's hard for me to believe that they were monsters."
He says the lawsuit alleging that the state flag is a vestige of slavery is wrong.
"Nobody is talking about going back to slavery," he says.
Stewart and other flag supporters are trying to get a ballot initiative that would protect the current Mississippi flag in the state constitution. But opponents are also seeking their own initiative.
"Good-thinking people want a flag that represents everybody," says Ronnie Crudup, bishop of New Horizon Church International in Jackson, Miss.
Clay Chandler, a spokesman for Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, calls the civil rights lawsuit over the flag a "frivolous attempt to use the federal court system to usurp the will of the people."
"The governor believes that the people of Mississippi should decide what the state flag is or is not," says Chandler. "He would have signed legislation placing the issue on November's ballot had it reached his desk."