A group of about 20 people gathered at the front of The University of Southern Mississippi’s Hattiesburg campus Sunday afternoon to protest President Rodney Bennett’s removal of the state flag.
Loosely organized via Facebook posts, the protest began at about 3:30 p.m. and ended around 5 p.m. Protesters stood amid a sea of state flags in the cold, damp air as passersby and drivers yelled and honked to show their support.
One of the leaders of the protest, Mark McPhail, explained the reasons for the protest.
“I feel like this is just a case of taxation without representation,” said McPhail, a local welder, fabricator and shop foreman. “The taxpayers and the voters of this state have spoken to keep the flag, and one person doesn’t have the right to take it down (at) a school that’s funded by the state.”
The protest comes just three days after USM’s Student Government Association voted 18-6-2 in favor of a resolution to officially remove the state flag from both the Hattiesburg and Gulf Park campuses. Senior political science major and SGA senator Nathan Barron wrote the resolution, R05F15, saying that the flag “does not represent the values of the Student Body or of the University and is inconsistent with the Southern Miss Students’ Creed,” according to the resolution.
But while students and SGA officials alike believe they can democratically remove the flag, supporters of the state flag argue that to do so is actually undemocratic. According to The New York Times, 65 percent of Mississippi citizens in 2001 voted to keep the state flag as is. Protesters like McPhail believe that if USM and other state institutions want state funding, then they should honor the wishes of the citizens who fund them.
“It just comes down to (this): if you’re paying for something, you ought to get what you’re paying for,” McPhail said. “And that’s the bottom line for us. It’s not about hate. It’s not about race.”
Protester Josh Sasser, a native of Mississippi but currently a forester working out of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, drove all the way to Hattiesburg Sunday morning to participate in the protest.
“People think we’re fighting for a part of the flag, but we’re fighting for the whole flag, bars and all,” Sasser said.
Among the protesters was local attorney Michael Barefield, who represented The United Sons of Confederate Veterans in the original flag lawsuit of the 1990s, which resulted in the 2001 state flag referendum.
Barefield was one of the chief organizers of the protest Sunday afternoon. He argues that the statute, MS Code § 3-3-16, which describes the design of the state flag, not only fails to mention the alleged Confederate symbolism but also ascribes the stars to the original States of the Union. Thus, though the Confederate battle flag may have been used for racist, terrorist purposes, the Mississippi state flag was never intended to symbolize even the Confederacy.
Nevertheless, Bennett’s original decision to remove the flag and the subsequent SGA resolution all but cement the university community’s decision to no longer fly the state’s flag until a new one is designed.
“While I love the state of Mississippi, there is passionate disagreement about the current state flag on our campuses and in our communities,” Bennett said in an email Oct. 28. “I am looking forward to a time when this debate is resolved and USM raises a state flag that unites us.”
SGA’s recently passed resolution says, “Furthermore, The University of Southern Mississippi shall not raise the flag of the State of Mississippi on the Hattiesburg or Gulf Coast campus as long as the Confederate emblem, in whole or in part, remains on the flag.”
Many supporters of the state flag echo said sentiment. If a second referendum, which Gov. Phil Bryant hopes to have in 2016, were to result in a new Mississippi flag, they say they will gladly fly that flag.
“If it is voted on again, to be changed, then I’ll support that flag,” McPhail said. “As long as it’s voted on by everyone and not just changed in a backroom at night somewhere, I think we’ll all be fine with it. It will represent our state—by the people. Everyone votes for it. I’m fine with that.”
Until such a time, however, Mississippians like McPhail will stand in support of their current flag.
“To me, it’s not about hate or race or the Confederacy or Civil War. It’s about the state of Mississippi. Almost everyone else will tell you the same thing.”