Reese: Mississippi knew its flag was not a race issue

Published April 19, 2001

The vote in Mississippi to retain the 104-year-old state flag, which includes the Confederate battle flag as part of its design, is being depicted in the news media as a racial issue. It isn’t.

Yes, I know a lot of liberals and professional racists say the battle flag is a symbol of racism and slavery. Well, then, how do you explain that polls conducted by Mississippi’s newspapers showed that 30 percent of the blacks favored the old flag?

It’s my belief that it has been an artificial controversy from the beginning, a fund-raising cause for the NAACP and an excuse to feel self-righteous for white liberals. A majority of Americans, black and white, I would guess, would be hard put to describe their state’s flag accurately, much less a historical flag.

The very idea that changing the design of a piece of cloth that flies on a flag pole is going to affect anyone’s life, one way or another, is ridiculous. It is purely a media issue.

I happened to be in Mississippi a few weeks before the vote, and there was no controversy "raging," as Northern newspapers like to state. Those in favor of the old flag, such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans, were planning a low-key campaign simply to let people know about the vote.

The proponents of the new flag, who raised more than $600,000, were largely liberal politicians and preachers and Chamber-of-Commerce types. Their only lame argument was that a new flag would attract new industry to the state. That in itself was plainly absurd to anyone who has had any involvement in industrial development. Corporations look for tax breaks, cheap land and relatively cheap labor. I’ve never heard a company ask about a state flag.

As for race relations, they seem to be as good in Mississippi as they are in most places and better than in some, such as Cincinnati, for example. Southerners include blacks and whites and always have. The two races have certainly had their differences and conflicts, as they have everywhere else in the United States, but, in the words of a Southern writer, they have "always milled around together," bound by their common love of the region, their Christian faith and common courtesy.

In Georgia and South Carolina, politicians caved in to media pressure. In Georgia, they changed the flag, and, in South Carolina, they moved it from the state Capitol building to a Confederate monument nearby. In both cases, the politicians denied the people a vote on the question. If they had, I’m pretty confident the vote would have mirrored Mississippi’s, where 65 percent voted for the old flag.

Mississippi is exactly the same today as it was before the vote. If residents had voted for the new flag, it would have been exactly the same. Changing the designs on pieces of cloth does not change complex human relationships. Nor does it change the economic status of people. And certainly black folks are smart enough to know that, which is why there was no large black turnout at the polls.

The Confederate flag, like reparations for slavery, is largely a media-generated controversy that most people don’t care about. This is the 21st century, and although all Americans should study their history, our main attention must be focused on the present.

There are no ex-slaves and no ex-slave owners. Nobody alive today owes anybody anything for something that happened to other people in another time. Nor can anybody alive today honestly say that their life is worse because some distant ancestor was a slave. The 1860 census, by the way, showed more than 3,500 black slave owners, and, of course, it was the Africans who enslaved their own people and sold them for rum and whatever.

We are responsible for our own sins and our own actions, but not for those of anyone else — least of all for people who were long dead before we were born. We should not be surprised that con artists and trial lawyers will take a run at making money out of history. (Why not? They’ve tried every other conceivable ploy.) We should not pay them any attention, however. We have more important things to do.

We Southerners often are faulted for our monuments and ceremonies honoring the Confederate dead, but the fact is that folks everywhere should honor and remember their ancestors. We are their posterity. We live in a world that they helped shape. None of us can change the past nor bring it back even if we wanted to, which we don’t. I like to read about the War Between the States, but I like to do so in the comfort of my air-conditioned living room.

We cannot stop professional racists from stirring even imaginary pots as they try to keep their jobs, but we should remember that the road to better race relations lies where it always has:

Looking at each other as human beings and not as representatives of groups or classes.

Copyright © 2001, Orlando Sentinel