Columbus joins five other cities in taking down flag after Charleston shooting
State refuses to change symbol which some associate with slavery and racism
Wednesday 22 July 2015 08.17 EDT
A growing number of Mississippi cities are removing the state’s flag from public property because it carries the battle emblem of the Confederate flag, even as the state itself has refused to change the symbol.
On Tuesday night, Columbus city lawmakers voted to remove flags in their city 6-0. The ruling is effective immediately and affects all state flags flown inside and outside city property.
Mayor Robert Smith, who in 2007 became the city’s first black mayor, said he introduced the measure following the mass killing in a Charleston, South Carolina, church in June that prompted that state to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse.
Smith, 62, said the state flag has long been a contentious issue for residents of his city, 60% of whom are black, according to 2010 US Census Bureau data.
“For those of us, the Confederate flag does not evoke memories of the good old days. It’s been about slavery and the bitter division in this country,” he told the Guardian. “It also reminds me of the period after the civil war ended when we had segregation and discrimination.
“I hope the sons and daughters of the Confederacy will appreciate how we see it. We want to unite.”
More than half a dozen other Mississippi cities had already removed the flag since the Charleston killings, including the state capitol of Jackson. The Gulf Coast Business Council and the Mississippi Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce are also calling for the removal of the state flag.
For white supporters, the flag’s removal is an opportunity to reverse historic wrongs and to help present their state in a different light.
“People think we’re still tobacco-chewing racists and that’s not the way it is,” said Columbus councilman Charlie Cox, who is white. “Mississippi is not the way it was back in the old days. People here want Mississippi to move forward and that’s what it will take.”
The maneuvers by cities like Columbus are seen as undermining state leadership that has remained resistant to the issue following Charleston. Mississippi is the state whose flag still carries the colors of the confederacy.
Governor Phil Bryant and Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves, both Republicans, say they support the results of a statewide election in 2001 that overwhelmingly voted to keep the state flag the way it is. Bryant says he will not call a special session to reconsider that vote.
But other state political leaders, including the Mississippi house speaker, Philip Gunn, and US senators Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, are breaking from their party and calling on the state to change its flag. “We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us,” Gunn said in a statement in late June. Around the same time, Wicker said that the state flag “should be put in a museum and replaced by one that is more unifying to all Mississippians”.
Marvin King, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, says as more municipalities in the state vote to strip the flag from public lands, the legislature will probably leave the decision to voters in the next statewide election in November to avoid getting reprimanded at the polls. “They will punt and not make a decision,” he said.
The divide between the statehouse in Jackson and local leaders throughout the state is largely along racial and party lines, he said. Nearly 40% of Mississippians are black, according to 2013 US Census Bureau data, as are most Democratic mayors of local municipalities. However, the majority of its state legislators are white and Republican. “Even though you see Democrats in some municipal areas it doesn’t translate statewide,” he said.
Still, for those who fought to have the Confederate emblem stricken from the state flag in 2001 but lost, the recent events suggest the tide is turning.
Mayor Bill Luckett of Clarksdale said voter apathy contributed to the original referendum, which produced a low turnout. However, the Charleston killing has presented “a tipping point” in galvanising change.
Because of his executive order in June, the flagpole in front of Clarksdale’s city hall where the state flag once hung now stands unadorned. While some angry constituents have accused him of cowardice, Luckett, who is white, said he has no regrets: “I’m able to sleep at night.”
Other cities that preceded Columbus in removing the state flag since the Charleston killings are Oxford, Hattiesburg, Grenada, Magnolia and Vicksburg.
Luckett described his state as “that last bastion of what could be called the Neo Confederacy,” where so many are beholden to traditions that preceded them by generations. The Confederate emblem, which first appeared on the state flag in 1894, is one of many symbols that became obstacles to racial reconciliation, he said. Nearly 80% of Clarksdale residents are black, according to 2013 US Census Bureau data.
“That flag stood as an in-your-face barrier for many years,” he said. “And we don’t need it.”