Heritage or Hate? The fierce battle over Mississippi’s flag and Confederate monuments
JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Much has been said about the Mississippi state flag over the past few weeks. That it represents hate, intolerance and that its mere presence exalts backwards thinking, to name a few.
This comes at a time of reckoning in the country surrounding racism and its ties to Confederate imagery. The Confederate battle flag has now been banned from NASCAR events, Confederate monuments are being removed or destroyed and the Army is considering whether or not to change the name of bases named after Confederate commanders.
Mississippi politicians, civilians and religious leaders alike are calling for the removal of the flag due to the Confederate symbol attached to it. There is even a bipartisan resolution making its way through the halls of the Capitol seeking to garner enough votes to remove the emblem from the flag.
For many in the state, if there were ever a time to do something about the flag, that time would be now.
But though this push is strong, it does not come without its opposition. There are also those who do not want the flag to go anywhere, some being Mississippi’s Sons of Confederate Veterans - a group whose statement of purpose includes honoring and protecting memorials, images, symbols, monuments and gravesites of Confederate veterans.
They are lead by their division commander George Bond, a descendant of over 60 Confederate soldiers and a man who sees the attempt at changing the state flag as an attack on both history and heritage.
This attack, he says, is nothing new. The calls to take down Confederate battle flags and Confederate monuments have been happening since the 1990s but, to him, this new atmosphere is different.
“Recently we’re seeing monuments to our ancestors that were erected after the war completely destroyed,” Bond says. "So, to us, it feels like an attack.”
These monuments, Bond argues, were not constructed out of hate but out of love. That they were commissioned by mothers of sons who went to war and never returned, by wives who never saw their husbands again and by sisters who said goodbye to their brothers for the last time.
“In many cases, these monuments are the only headstones that our ancestors had,” Bond says. “Put yourself in our situation. How would you feel if all of a sudden somebody came to your mother or your father’s grave and took a sledgehammer to it? You would feel like personally you were under attack. That’s how we feel.”
Bond says that it pains him every time a new monument comes down, in part because, “people don’t realize how diverse the Confederate army was in the 1860s. There were people of color fighting in the Confederate army, not just Caucasians. ... When you’re taking a sledgehammer to the monument, it’s not just the white soldiers you’re destroying a monument to, it’s to the other ethnicities as well.”
Which brings up the conversation around race and the Confederate symbol, a symbol which has been used by white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis. It’s an emblem which is also prominently featured on the Mississippi flag.
According to a Pew Research poll done in 2015, 42% of African-Americans surveyed had a negative reaction to seeing the Confederate battle flag to only 6% who had a positive reaction to it. This compared to 27% of whites who had a negative reaction to the symbol and 16% who had a positive reaction.
The majority of those surveyed though, 49% of African-Americans and 56% of whites, had no reaction at all.
Bond says he understands why some may be uncomfortable with the symbol and he does not appreciate that hate groups have hijacked the emblem of his ancestors.
“But,” Bond asks, "my question is: are you also uncomfortable by the US flag? Because the Klan also uses the US flag, neo-Nazis use the US flag... Again, if we want to talk about historical atrocities, let’s go back to the federal flag, the US flag. The US flag flew over slave ships. The US flag flew over this nation for over 80 years while slavery was a legal institution. If we’re gonna be offended by something, let’s be offended by everything. Not just one image that has been misused...”
He, on behalf of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, adamantly denounces the Ku Klux Klan and says that if any member has ties to the organization, they are immediately expelled.
That aside, for Bond, when he sees the Mississippi flag, he says he sees pride in his state, the achievements the state has made since 1894, the fact that in the 1980s, "Mississippi had more African-American elected representatives then the entire United States had in the 1950s."
“That happened under that flag,” Bond says. "I think about all those good things and when I see that it makes me smile.”
If the legislature were to replace the flag, Bond admits he would be disappointed. He points to Mississippi’s failing infrastructure and failing school districts and wonders if the flag should be the main concern at the moment.
“Is this really the time to be thinking about this?" he asks. "Or should we focus on the things that really will make Mississippi have a brighter future? If I were a legislator, that’s what I would be more concerned about then trying to circumvent the will of the people and the voice of the people.”
To Bond, Mississippians should be the ones to vote on whether to keep the flag as they did in the now often cited 2001 Mississippi Flag Referendum in which the current flag won 2-to-1.
If Mississippians were to vote, though, and the current flag were replaced by, say, the Stennis Flag, Bond said he would respect the decision. Regarding his feelings towards the Stennis Flag: "I’m not saying it’s ugly, but… It’s a little bit unimaginative.”
Bond says the best fix to the flag controversy is a binding referendum. That way, "if the 1894 flag wins, huzzah for us. If the Stennis Flag... or any other flag they decide to present wins, great for it. We are loyal Mississippi citizens, we’re loyal US citizens and we will support the voice of the people.”
Although there are many who will defend the Mississippi flag, notable celebrities have turned against it. Men like Morgan Freeman, Jimmy Buffett and John Grisham have all said the Mississippi flag should be changed.
Even current Speaker of the House Philip Gunn said, "As a Christian, I believe our state’s flag has become a point of offence that needs to be removed.”
Another voice echoing those calls comes from an interesting source - Bertram Davis, the great-great grandson of Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the short lived Confederate States of America.
Bertram Davis, who runs a tourism business in Vicksburg with his wife Carol, understands those who want to keep the flag as it is, saying most Mississippians have a relationship to it because a relative likely fought in the Civil War.
“At the same time, the battle flag has been resurrected under a different regime now,” Davis says. "And because it has been taken out of context... I think it’s important for us to realize that that stigma is not going away. And if it’s not going away, you have to deal with it.”
For Davis, he does not believe the Confederate emblem to be racist. That being said, “I’m not an African-American looking at it saying it denotes slavery. It also denotes white supremacy. I understand the history of the flag, as do most people who hold it in reverence, but, at the same time, it’s divisive because of what it is.”
He describes his own evolution towards the flag, saying it began after he moved to Mississippi in 2012. He saw the industries coming to the state and the renewed interest in the Mississippi flag and the Confederate emblem in its left upper hand corner. People wondering what it was and what it meant.
“I know what it is,” Davis says, "and I know what it means, and I know why it’s there because a lot of Mississippians that still live here today, their ancestors fought under that flag. I completely understand that. But I think it’s a complete discussion that even folks that have been here forever are looking at it saying, ‘Maybe we should have something better to represent our state than just that one emblem.’”
Though Davis is in support of replacing the state flag, he is still a staunch defender of history. He sees the attack on monuments, both Confederate and non-Confederate alike, and calls it ‘disturbing.' Last week, a statue of Jefferson Davis was toppled in Richmond. Statues of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Christopher Columbus have also been vandalized.
“There is this continued effort to annihilate history,” Davis says. "We wanna get rid of everything that we did that was bad. The problem we have is that the people getting rid of it don’t even know the history of it... I don’t know how far we’re gonna let it go but if we continue to let it go further than what it is, we’ll destroy the whole base of our country.”
There is this continued effort to annihilate history. We wanna get rid of everything that we did that was bad.
To Davis, the best solution is to remove the statues safely and to put them somewhere where they can be seen by people who want to see them and learn the history of the individual. He also doesn’t see the removal of these statues as somehow degrading to the person they commemorate.
But Davis sees the fight for the current state flag as a losing game. The Confederate emblem, to Davis, could not undergo enough PR to wash away what people believe it represents. It’s been tainted, he says, never to be cleaned. However, Davis does wish it to be something for people to completely understand, if only behind the glass of a museum.
“Mississippi has an opportunity now to engage the entire population and make a statement,” Davis says. "We’re all Mississippians... The removal of [the flag] and the bringing forth of a new flag seems to me that it would be a unification effort.”
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