Sid Salter • August 27, 2008
Like a bad penny, the issue of the 2001 referendum he led to give Mississippi voters an opportunity to change the state flag’s 1894 design to a new one which deleted the Confederate battle flag’s "stars and bars" is likely to come back to Democratic U.S. Senate nominee and former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.
It won’t be the first time. The flag issue was a strong subtext in Musgrove’s 2003 re-election bid loss to current Gov. Haley Barbour.
Barbour made clear during a 2003 appearance before The Clarion-Ledger Editorial Board that he differed with Musgrove on the state flag issue.
Pointing to a lapel pin that featured a Mississippi state flag crossed with Old Glory, Barbour said: "I’ve worn this pin for the entirety of the campaign. I’m running for governor of Mississippi and this is the Mississippi state flag. I’m not in favor of changing it."
Musgrove, on the other hand, said of the flag vote in his 2001 "State of the State" address: "The people of Mississippi are waiting. The world is watching. I urge you to put this issue on the ballot and let us move forward."
But Mississippi voters rejected the proposition of changing the state flag at the ballot box on April 17, 2001 by a 2-1 margin.
The manner in which Mississippi voters made that decision was telling.
Black Mississippi voters were conspicuously absent on the flag issue in 2001. Need evidence? Look at the Mississippi Delta region – the heart of our state’s black voter population.
In those counties, the 1894 flag won a 60 percent margin of approval. Statewide, the 1894 flag won 494,223 votes or 64.52 percent of the vote to 271,728 votes or 35.48 percent of the vote for the proposed "new" design.
The 1995 gubernatorial race saw incumbent Republican Kirk Fordice lose 29 black majority counties to Democratic nominee Dick Molpus who issued a courageous and long overdue 1989 apology to the families of the three civil rights workers slain in 1964 in his home Neshoba County.
By comparison, the 1894 state flag won only 17 black majority counties.
Or look at these numbers – Fordice won 455,261 votes in 1995 against Molpus. The 1894 flag won 494,223 votes in 2001 – a spread of just under 40,000. Molpus took 364,210 votes in 1995 – 92,482 more than the 271,728 votes cast for the "new" flag.
Records in the secretary of state’s office show that black voter participation in the flag referendum was significantly down.
That fact suggests two conclusions: Black voters didn’t find the flag issue as compelling as predicted and there was an obvious failure of pro-flag change forces to organize and motivate those voters to the ballot box.
The failure of the 2001 flag referendum can’t be blamed on a conspiracy by the state’s white power structure. The Mississippi Economic Council – the "state’s chamber of commerce" – took the lead in backing the issue.
Musgrove was elected governor with a 49.6 percent plurality in 1999 over Republican Mike Parker. In 2003, Barbour was elected with 52.6 percent to Musgrove’s 45.9 percent.
Musgrove actually got 30,000 more votes in 2003 than in 1999, but Barbour got 100,000 more votes than did Parker.
The question in 2008 is whether Republican interim U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker’s campaign will take a page from Barbour’s 2003 playbook and use the flag referendum issue against Musgrove.
A better question is whether Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s demonstrated broad appeal to African-American voters and young voters of all races offsets any less-than-subtle interjection of race into the campaign via the state flag issue.
But for Musgrove opponents, the flag referendum has proven the gift that keeps on giving.