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Mitchell: South’s Heritage Includes Reputation for Gentility Too

One stereotype we Southerners love to hear praises our collective gentility.

We open doors for ladies. We say yes ma’am and no sir.

When a friend’s momma dies, we send flowers and food. When a hearse-led procession passes, we pull over. These gestures don’t change anything. Momma is still dead. But they ease the grief of the family and show respect. That is our sole intent. It’s our heritage.

The deadly rampage by a virulent racist in South Carolina quickly morphed into a debate about Mississippi’s flag. People have come at the topic from all angles.

Many see no connection, but viewed across the pattern of history, there is one and it is obvious: When a travesty occurs, people of good will want to do something, to respond in some way.
This state’s flag, which incorporates the red, white and blue of the American flag as well as a battle flag of the Confederacy, has no magic. Like all flags, it’s a piece of cloth. Changing to a flag without the battle emblem would not end racism any more than flowers at a funeral change the reality of death.

But it’s time. Symbols do matter.We can’t undo the gunfire that killed nine people at a Charleston church service. We can make a visible statement.

Way back in 1968, then California Gov. Ronald Reagan spoke to the Republican National Convention’s platform committee and said, “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore to the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.”

That resonates. “Society” didn’t kill the worshippers. A person did. And there’s no basis to say that the presence or absence of Confederate symbols, co-opted by racists, would have made an iota of difference.

But that’s not the argument. No one is saying, “If only South Carolina had a universally non-offensive flag, this (or other) crazed individual racists would not exist.” You see, Reagan posited this an either-or proposition: We either blame society or we blame the individual. But that’s not valid. No one is saying that the accused, Dylann Roof, should not be held accountable — fully and completely.

What pro-change voices are suggesting is a response at the societal level. It doesn’t excuse or explain what happened at that church or the many other times the battle flag has been used to express hate. It doesn’t mean hate is defeated. It’s also not an apology. And it’s certainly not, as some has said, giving “them” (meaning black people) something.

Remember? Fourteen years ago Mississippi examined its flag and found it blameless.

It was 2001. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove commissioned a new flag design. A nonbinding referendum was held that April. The new flag had the endorsement of the state’s business community and myriad others. But there was a lackluster turnout (750,000 voted as compared to 1.3 million in presidential elections) that was even more lackluster among black voters.

“Let’s move on,” Musgrove said.

And we did.

But now the issue is back, propelled into the headlines by the evil acts of a person reported to have sat in the church for an hour listening to the people he was about to kill. Change has been endorsed by the Republican governor of South Carolina and the Republican speaker of the Mississippi House, Philip Gunn of Clinton, who said his Christian faith compelled him to speak out. A trickle turned into a torrent. In the Internet age, online petitions gathered thousands of signatures for or against.

Social media has come alive with new designs and old ones, including the Magnolia Flag, which Birney Imes of The Commercial Dispatch in Columbus circulated years ago. It, by the way, was Mississippi’s from 1861 until 1894, the years of secession and Reconstruction. It’s a good flag, but there are others.

As merely a matter of politeness, the governor could call a special session, Speaker Gunn could lead his colleagues to the right decision and a new flag could be flying in a matter of weeks.
Would that, of itself, bring about any substantive change? Not likely.

It would, however, make a statement that needs to be made. “Heritage” is more than a flag. It includes being a genteel people. It may be perfectly legal to be offensive, but it’s not polite.

Charlie Mitchell

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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