Story highlights

Controversy over symbolism behind Mississippi state flag extends back to 19th century

Ole Miss student senators follow many cities, schools in denouncing the state flag

At upper echelons of government, state's executive office and its U.S. senators at odds

CNN  — 

The Mississippi state flag is a Confederate battle flag in a most literal sense.

Consider the consternation and squabbling sparked by the question: Is it a celebration of slavery, thus making it a racist relic of a bygone time, or is it a symbol of Southern pride, a memorial to the Confederate soldiers who fought for states’ rights?

Those in the former camp have succeeded in bringing down the flag across the state despite what would appear to be strong support for it.

The latest battleground is Oxford, a proud Southern college town where student senators voted 33-15 (with one abstention) Tuesday night to ask the University of Mississippi, home of the Rebels athletic squads, to keep the state flag off campus.

Although the nonbinding resolution was approved by a more than 2-to-1 margin, rallies ahead of the vote drew resistance. A petition to keep the flag drew more than 500 supporters (at least 300 of whom signed on the day of the vote) and flag supporters attended protests carrying signs with messages such as “This is our University too,” according to The Daily Mississippian, the school paper.

Muddying the issue of whether it’s a symbol of heritage was the arrival on campus of a dozen members of a Ku Klux Klan organization, one of whom complained to the newspaper of “black leftist communism” groups that had formed in the wake of the June church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.

Church shooting cast issue in new light

Indeed, Confederate tributes have come under increased scrutiny in the South since the killings of nine African-Americans at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Shooter Dylann Roof apparently revered the flag as a symbol of white supremacy.

South Carolina permanently lowered the Confederate flag flying over the Capitol in July, and at a national level, Amazon, eBay, Walmart, Sears, Etsy, Warner Brothers and NASCAR were among the entities limiting or prohibiting the sale or display of items featuring Confederate imagery.

But the fight over Mississippi’s flag predates that horrific massacre. It also goes back farther than a 2001 referendum in which Mississippians voted – by a margin of 64% to 36% – to leave the flag as is.

Debunking Confederate battle flag myths

The Mississippi Historical Society notes that conflicting accounts of the flag’s origin go back to 1894, when Gov. John Marshall Stone, a Confederate colonel, signed the flag into law after a legislative committee recommended it include a red square in its top left corner bearing a blue cross with 13 stars “corresponding to the number of the original States of the Union.”

Symbolism aside, that basic description could also apply to the Beauregard battle flag, commonly known nowadays as the Confederate battle flag.

Despite the claim that the Legislature wanted the 13 stars to represent the original United States of America, the state historical society says that in 1924, Fayssoux Scudder Corneil told a United Daughters of the Confederacy convention that her father, Sen. E.N. Scudder, had a reason for including the Beauregard battle flag on the state banner.

“My father loved the memory of the valor and courage of those brave men who wore the grey,” she told the convention, according to the historical society. “He told me that it was a simple matter for him to design the flag because he wanted to perpetuate in a legal and lasting way that dear battle flag under which so many of our people had so gloriously fought.”

When there exists debate over how the flag was conceived more than a century ago, you can see how average Mississippians on each side of the debate in 2015 could believe the opposing camp is engaging in revisionism.

Cities, schools bring it down

Still, the last decade and a half has seen the flag removed from campuses and government buildings throughout the state.

The vote by the Ole Miss student senators follows a decision by the Oxford Board of Aldermen to remove the flag from city property in August. That was around the same time actor Morgan Freeman, author John Grisham, musician Jimmy Buffett and others signed a letter calling on the state to come up with a new flag.

Other Mississippi cities – including Macon, Columbus, Grenada, Magnolia, Hattiesburg, Clarksdale, Starkville, Yazoo City and Greenwood – have voted or issued executive orders to remove the state flag from city property since the Charleston shooting (conversely, the cities of Petal and Gautier have voted to keep the flag flying since the massacre).

The City Council in the state capital, Jackson, which hasn’t flown the state flag on city property in more than a decade, voted in July to urge the state to create a new flag, CNN affiliate WAPT reported.

Also taking action since Charleston were Leflore County, which took down the flag this summer, and the Gulf Coast Business Council and Mississippi Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce, both of which said they’d endorse a new flag without the Confederate canton in the corner.

The Ole Miss vote is also in line with the stances of at least four other public universities in the state, according to the Mississippi Business Journal: Jackson State University, Mississippi Valley State University, Alcorn State University and Mississippi State University, whose Faculty Senate voted before the 2001 statewide referendum to support efforts to change the state flag.

Tennessee county votes no on flag

Delta State University this summer praised the “multicultural identity associated with our people, musical heritage, literature, and the arts” and called on the state to change its flag, which it said “promotes divisiveness.” But the school cited another reason for its opposition: the NCAA’s belief that the Confederate flag is a symbol of oppression for players, fans and coaches.

“Delta State is home to Mississippi’s only collegiate swimming and diving program, and boasts state-of-the-art facilities,” the school statement said. “Yet Delta State is not allowed to host NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships due to the design of Mississippi’s current flag.”

The University of Southern Mississippi, too, issued a statement saying, “The current state flag does not represent the spirit of all Mississippians.”

‘Mississippians have already had a discussion’

The only remaining public university, the Mississippi University for Women, has not issued a statement or removed the flag, but an article last month in the school’s weekly newspaper reported that faculty and school leaders are discussing the matter.

For its part, Ole Miss’ press office issued a statement Tuesday commending its student senators for employing debate and the democratic process and said the university would consider input from graduate students, faculty and staff in “deciding how it will move forward.”

“As a university committed to fostering a welcoming and inclusive campus for all students, we continue to join other leaders in Mississippi to encourage our government to change the state flag,” the statement said.

It would seem the tide favors those who want a new flag in the Magnolia State, but whether the actions of various cities, towns and universities will be enough to penetrate the upper echelons of government remains unclear.

South Carolinians OK with lowering flag

The week after the Charleston massacre, Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves both issued statements indicating they would not take up the issue of changing the flag. Bryant said in a statement to The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson that the 2001 vote was a done deal, but one that could be revisited

“Mississippians have already had a discussion about the state flag. It was put to a vote, and an overwhelming majority chose to keep the flag. Mississippians have the right to revisit that decision either through their elected representatives in the Legislature or through the initiative process,” he said.

The following day, however, Mississippi’s Republican U.S. Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker took the opposite tack, calling on state leaders to choose a banner that was more unifying and less divisive and to place the present flag in a museum.

Wicker, who said he was the descendant of Confederate soldiers and does not find the flag offensive, cited the Bible in explaining his position.

“In I Corinthians 8, the Apostle Paul said he had no personal objection to eating meat sacrificed to idols. But he went on to say that ‘if food is a cause of trouble to my brother, or makes my brother offend, I will give up eating meat.’ The lesson from this passage leads me to conclude that the flag should be removed since it causes offense to so many of my brothers and sisters,” the senator wrote.

CNN’s Devon M. Sayers contributed to this report.