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Flag: Us' v. Them' in too many minds

By Staff
April 11, 2001
Like most Mississippians on both sides of the contentious argument over the future of Mississippi's 1894 state flag, I am ready for the April 17 special election to be concluded. I've grown weary of conversations about the flag, prognostications about the flag, writing about it and reading about it.
No question, there are some racists on both sides of this fight. The correspondence and phone calls I've received have borne out that fact over the last few months. It's an "us" against "them" fight in the minds of far too many people both inside the state and outside, too.
As a white Mississippian with Confederate ancestors on both sides of my family and my wife's family, I've made clear to some who have corresponded with me that I don't need history lessons from peckerwoods or those who still don't have all their sheets on their beds.
I've also made clear to some of those callers that my ancestors didn't fight to defend the right of some coward to defile the Confederate Battle Flag a hundred years later by waving it while innocent people were savaged by thugs who believed it proper to murder a man simply because he wanted the right to vote.
Guilt
Changing our state flag won't fill one hungry belly, convert one rabid racist, improve standardized test scores in our schools and won't necessarily improve race relations in this state. It's just a flag. To most folks, it's not even relevant to their daily lives.
But I was born in Neshoba County, Mississippi a place where folks know a little bit about an entire people being judged guilty because of the actions
of a handful of people. Stanley Dearman, my old boss at The Neshoba Democrat 20 years ago, summed up the post-Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney murders years in Philadelphia as evoking a sense of "corporate guilt" among Neshobans.
Better than anyone else, Dearman crystallized the notion that most people in Neshoba County after 1964 had no reason to feel guilty about anything overt they had done during that long, hot summer of violence.
Only a few men actually did the deed. Less than one-tenth of one percent of Neshoba Countians could have helped the FBI solve the case of the missing civil rights workers had they been so inclined.
The guilt, it seemed, came from each person wondering in his heart of hearts about those small things he failed to do that might have contributed to an environment in which racial atrocities could not exist.
Flag-waving
As a little boy holding my Papaw Salter's hand, I remember watching Klansmen and their sympathizers wave the Confederate Battle Flag on the courthouse square on a Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1964. We were standing in front of Johnson's Feed Store on the north side of the square.
It seemed like a parade. Folks were hooting and hollering and shouting. In retrospect, it was a simple show of force designed to instill fear and for
good or ill, the flag was made part of that show. No one not a Sons of Confederate Veterans member, not a historian, not a legitimate preservationist, no one stepped up to take the flag away from these
hooligans.
I wasn't the only child on the courthouse square that Saturday afternoon almost 40 years ago now.
There were black children holding the hands of their grandparents and parents. The fear on their faces was palpable and real and in retrospect, the fear on their faces was shameful and demeaning in the extreme.
What Lee said
I did appreciate one letter I received during the flag debate over the last few months. Arlen Coyle of Oxford wrote and reminded me of two historical
instances in which Robert E. Lee spoke to the very question before us on the April 17 ballot.
Coyle wrote: "… more than a few of General Lee's soldiers were men with smoldering eyes and hearts, not prepared to give up the cause of secession. They enlisted the General's support … Lee shook his head and replied, Abandon your animosities and make your sons Americans.'"
Mr. Coyle also wrote an account of Lee's encounter years after the Civil War with a woman near Lexington, VA, who waved to the general as he rode past her home and bade him stop to admire her Confederate flag as she "spoke of her dedication to the Lost Cause."
Lee was reported to have replied: "Madam, put that flag away. Move on. We must all move on."
There are people of good will all over Mississippi who want desperately to "move on" past Mississippi's sullied and undeserved reputation as a racial hell hole. So many times in our past, Mississippians have had a chance to stand up and do the right thing on racial issues and so many times, we've failed to answer the call to our detriment.
Business leaders, religious leaders, educators, government officials, professionals and a host of other diverse Mississippi groups have joined together to urge adoption of a new flag.
It's time to strike a balance between honoring our ancestors and cursing our children to another generation of racial strife. I'm voting to change the state flag on April 17 because my heart and my head tell me it is right to do so.
Why? Because as a five-year-old, I was waving one of those little "Rebel" flags while the black children down the street were cowering afraid of a piece of cloth that to them represented violence and suffering.
I wasn't old enough to know better then. I am now.
Sid Salter is publisher/editor of the Scott County Times in Forest. E-mail him at salternews.aol.com.

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