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No middle ground: Both sides fervent about reasons to keep, change flag

Hanging to the left of Yolande Robbins on the outside wall of the Jacqueline House is an African-American symbol for unity and truth. Robbins said she hopes to see the old flag replaced to symbolize unity. (The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[03/19/01] At the Gray and Blue Naval Museum in Vicksburg, many flags fly along the sidewalk where tourists stroll between shops, but co-owner Lamar Roberts says one flag will never be raised at the Civil War gallerythe proposed new banner.

Roberts, who has long been outspoken on the issue of the flag, said that he will continue to fly the state’s 107-year-old unofficial state flag even if Mississippi voters chose the new banner in the April 17 election. And he does not believe it will affect his tourism-based business.

“The flag is only important to the people of the state,” Roberts said. “If the flag is really offensive, then why do they (tourists) keep coming?”

Flags are an important part of the museum in the historic downtown district. Small replicas of the Confederate States flags line the counter, or visitors can buy full-size state flags including the Bonnie Blue flag and the Magnolia flag.

Roberts said that the debate over the state banner with the Confederate Battle flag in the corner has not slowed traffic at the museum where about 12,000 tourist visit every year. Since the first of the year, revenue has been up 33 percent, he said.

“My sales have increased,” he said. “I can’t keep flags.”

Supporters, including the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which Roberts is a member, defend the old flag as representative of the state’s heritage, while many religious groups and business organizations have come out favoring adoption of the new design.

Yolande Robbins, whose family donated the Jacqueline House to the Vicksburg African-American Historical Preservation Foundation as a museum for black history, said she sees the current flag as a rallying symbol against the civil rights movement.

“My personal feeling is I would really like to see the old flag replaced,” Robbins said. “It would symbolize the unity that we all aspire to.”

About 1,000 people a year visit the home that once belonged to Robbins’ sister and now bares her name. There, they can see a cast iron kettle once used for cooking before people had modern ovens, a homemade washboard and photos of black leaders in Vicksburg from the early part of the century.

What they will not see is the Mississippi flag.

“The argument that we’re making is for inclusion,” Robbins said. “There is so much more to the history of Vicksburg.”

Last year, tourism-related businesses added $6.09 billion into the state economy, a 9.6 percent increase from the $5.55 billion generated in 1999, according to a report from the Mississippi Development Authority’s Division of Tourism Development.

Tourism and recreation accounted for 94,100 jobs in 2000, up 5 percent from 1999. The report took into account spending on attractions, lodging, transportation, retail, food and beverage and gambling.

About 1 million people visit the Vicksburg National Military Park annually.

Two visitors at the park this week who stopped in at the Gray and Blue Museum were quick to give their thoughts on the issue. Both said they would not want to see the state change the banner like Georgia did in January.

“That (the flag) is part of our history,” said Jim Brown from Colorado. “People today are just too sensitive.”

Charlene Sullivan, also from Colorado, said that she could not understand why people would want to change the state’s flag that she said represents the history of Mississippi.

“I think it’s just nuts.” Sullivan said. “They’re taking everything from the past and trying to rewrite history.”

Roberts said that he fears that changing the flag could damage tourism as much as a boycott like the one in South Carolina by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Protesters marched on the South Carolina state capitol last year demanding that the Confederate Battle flag be removed from the building.

“If you eliminate the history of Mississippi, why visit Mississippi?” Roberts asks.

Although he passionately supports the current banner, Roberts said that the Sons of Confederate Veterans will not be sponsoring any rallies in support of the flag before the election.

“You can’t make any friends getting out there and causing a disturbance,” he said.

Since absentee voting began two weeks ago, about 150 ballots had been cast in Warren County as of Thursday. Usually an indication of how many people will vote on election day, Circuit Clerk Larry Ashley said that the low number suggests that there will be a low turnout on election day.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of black people to whom its just not a burning issue,” Robbins said.

She said that she does not want people to stop honoring their history, but that monuments like those in the national park are a better way. She also questioned why some people are so quick to argue for the current flag.

“I think that they are more concerned with defending the positions that their ancestries took,” Robbins said.

She also said that she felt like not changing the flag could have a negative effect on tourism for the state.

“My instinct is that if the present flag is maintained, it will be an issue for black tourists,” Robbins said.

Others in the tourism industry locally disagreed on what effect, if any, changing the flag might have on the state. Lenore Barkley, executive director of the Vicksburg Visitor and Convention Bureau said that changing the flag would be the best thing for tourism.

“We need to move forward,” Barkley said.

Gordon Cotton, historian and curator of the Old Courthouse Museum, disagreed. He said that he could see no point in changing the flag.

“I could get offended by the American flag for the way my great-grandmother was treated during the siege and occupation, but I don’t,” Cotton said. “History should not be changed.”

The new banner that voters will be asked to consider next month has a constellation of 20 stars in the upper left replacing the battle flag.

“I think that people will vote for the new flag,” Robbins said. “Something that represents and unifies us all.”

“How can you have a flag that represents everybody?” Roberts asks. “If you change it, it won’t represent me.”