Hundreds jeer, cheer for, against flag

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 14, 2000

With a flag hoisted high, supporters of the current state flag cheer during the flag debate Monday night at Millsaps College in Jackson. About 450 people filled the auditorium while several hundred waited in the hallways. (The Vicksburg Post/PAT SHANNAHAN)

JACKSON While the jeering, catcalls and bitter divisiveness at Millsaps College Monday was typical of the four earlier state flag meetings, the number of people willing to step across racial lines made the final forum stand apart.

As supporters of the traditional state flag and those who want a new banner have traded barbs over differing versions of state history, the flag’s symbolism and the meaning of heritage, one thing has been a near constant: white speakers have backed the flag, and black speakers have opposed it.

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But at Monday’s gathering, more than half-dozen whites spoke in support of ditching the banner that contains the Confederate battle flag.

“A state flag should not cause pain to its own people,” said DeWitt Allred of Collins, who is white. “This is a deliberate slap in the face to the black people of Mississippi.”

He suggested a design with the Bonnie Blue flag, a blue flag with a white star, in the corner, and a magnolia tree. The magnolia is the state tree.

But a flag supporter, also white, who spoke later called efforts to change the flag “a slap in the face to the brave men who fought and died for the Confederacy” and expressed fears that Confederate monuments would be the next victims of a politically correct witch hunt.

Eight members of the 14-member flag commission appointed by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove attended Monday’s hearing, the last in a series held across the state.

Commission members have the power to recommend a flag design to the Legislature, which has the authority to designate a flag.

The state Supreme Court ruled in May that the traditional Mississippi state flag dating to 1890, although used for many official purposes, has not been officially recognized since 1906.

Mississippi, founded in 1817, has had many state flags, including some using the magnolia tree.

The crowd of about 450 was nearly evenly split between those who like the flag and those who say it is a reminder of slavery and oppression.

Several hundred others were forced to wait outside the college auditorium because of seating limitations.

Millsaps student Patrick Jerome said opponents of the flag want to destroy the unique Southern culture.

“They don’t like the flag because it makes us think,” Jerome said. “It makes us think about how racism is possible and how people can change.”

Eugene Bryant, a member of the Mississippi NAACP, stepped to the microphone to make clear his organization’s position: “The current flag must be changed. It does not represent all the people of Mississippi.”

He added that a public referendum, which many flag supporters have called for, would only further divide the state.

While a few bridged the gap, the rancor and racial tensions of previous meetings were still present at Millsaps, with taunts and screaming at times drowning out the speakers.

“If you don’t like the state flag, there are 49 other states you can move to,” Amanda McNease of Columbia said to cheers, after she explained that blacks should be grateful for slavery because conditions here were better for them than in Africa.

Rip Daniels of Gulfport, who is black, said he was displaying his own heritage by fighting against the state flag.

“You leave me no choice but to be your enemy as long as you wave a battle flag,” Daniels said. “If it is your heritage, then it is my heritage to resist it with every fiber of my being.”

With insults flying and heated emotions on both sides, a Catholic priest suggested that Mississippians are not yet prepared to deal with the contentious issue of the flag and put it behind them.

“We need to change our hearts, and then we can start to talk about the external expression of that, the flag,” said the Rev. Aedan Manning. “All we’re talking about is the past, as in black vs. white, but the future of Mississippi is not black and white.”