On March 8, the Mississippi House voted 57 – 56 to deny tax exemptions to public universities that refuse to fly the state flag. The flag, which features the Confederate symbol, has been seen as a sign of racism and hatred in recent years.
After the July 2015 Charleston shooting, many hoped that the Mississippi state flag and all others sporting the Confederate symbol would be removed and redesigned. Dylann Roof, the shooter responsible for killing nine people, is known for being a proud white supremacist, posing in photos with the Confederate flag, a handgun and Neo-Nazi symbolism. Roof admitted in his 2,000 word manifesto that he wanted to declare a race war.
Just 10 days after the Charleston massacre, Bree Newsome, an African-American activist, performed an act of civil disobedience by climbing up the flag pole outside of the South Carolina State House to take down the Confederate flag. She was helped by friend and fellow white activist James Tyson, which was a strategic choice.
In an interview to the Blue Nation Review, Newsome said she planned for a white ally to aid her in the flag’s removal “as a sign that our alliance transcended both racial and gender divides.”
“You see, I know my history and my heritage,” Newsome said. “The Confederacy is neither the only legacy of the South nor an admirable one. The Southern heritage I embrace is the legacy of a people unbowed by racial oppression.”
Newsome’s act was not only a response to the tragedy in South Carolina, but also a reaction to the Confederacy’s historic and infamous stance of seeing African- Americans as lesser than whites. Roof, clearly encouraged by the Confederacy’s ideology along with the modern-day KKK’s “failure” by doing nothing more than “talking on the Internet,” he felt like he needed to be a hero.
In his manifesto he said, “I chose Charleston because it is [the] most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of Blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”
Roof ’s actions should have been a wakeup call to the present- day supporters who consider the love of their heritage to be more important than the feelings and acknowledgment of wrongs committed against African-Americans. But surprisingly, the deaths of nine innocent, Christians (whose religion I mention because Southerners seem to prefer Christians over any other religious person) was not enough.
Many have been quick to defend the Confederacy, saying that the Civil War was never fought over slavery but simply states’ rights. Either way, it is important to realize that the federal government allowed for the states to decide the humanity of African-Americans, and that has caused damaging effects to race relations today.
All eight presidents of Mississippi public universities have taken the state flag down due to wanting to send the message of a united front. In October of 2015, president of USM Rodney Bennett decided to remove and replace the state flag with an American flag.
“I have chosen to raise American flags on all University of Southern Mississippi flagpoles to remind the university community of what unites us,” Bennett said. “While I love the state of Mississippi, there is passionate disagreement about the current state flag on our campuses and in our communities.”
With Bennett’s statement, Roof ’s act of violence and Newsome’s act of resistance in mind, the common thread appears to be division. The state flag will continue to be a symbol of division until it is redesigned.
The fact that lawmakers want universities to endorse a symbol of division with the incentive of tax breaks is nothing but insensitive to the African-American population. Lawmakers should continue to fund public universities and provide tax breaks because they believe education is important.
If all eight public universities in Mississippi have removed their flag, it is because their presidents, like Bennett, believe that our flag is not inclusive and emphasizes the old, white supremacist ideals of Southerners.
Until Republicans in the House as well as the few Confederate flag supporters who set up camp outside of USM on the weekends can stop supporting the losing team of the Civil War, become more empathetic and change the flag to something less controversial like the state bird or flower, we will continue to have this conversation.