By Jeff Roberson
I guess I’m about as Mississippi as you can get. I’ve never lived in any other state. A lot of you reading this haven’t either. I join you as ‘lifers.’
I don’t even know if I can recall all the “Mississippi” that’s in me as I write this. I’ll mention a couple and get to my main point.
I’m fortunate to have been born into a big Mississippi family. One of my first cousins on my father’s side was a quarterback on the 1962 Walk of Champions perfect season Ole Miss football team. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a historian and writer in his time.
After serving in the Navy during World War II, my dad was working for his dad in Pontotoc, and a couple of years later he received a call from an acquaintance. “Babe” McCarthy asked my dad to join him in Baldwyn to help him coach. After some back and forth dialogue over a few days, dad went. During his first year there he met the woman he would marry, and a decade later I came along.
Not just because he was later a highly successful head basketball coach at Mississippi State with four SEC titles in 10 seasons, McCarthy became one of the most significant figures in Mississippi sports during the civil rights movement. In 1963, he and his MSU team defied state law and basically escaped Mississippi for East Lansing, Michigan, so the Bulldogs could play Loyola of Chicago in the NCAA Tournament.
Loyola had black players, and Mississippi teams were not allowed to be integrated or play integrated teams. Some say it was a written rule, others say it was unwritten. Bottom line, it wasn’t a “rule” or a “law” that was the hangup, it was society and its leaders.
There have been stories written about that 1963 MSU team and its important game on the basketball court of the Big Ten’s MSU. There have also been documentaries, and my friend Kyle Veazey, an Ole Miss alum who lives in Memphis and works for Mayor Jim Strickland, wrote a book, “Champions For Change: How the Mississippi State Bulldogs and Their Bold Coach Defied Segregation.”
When Kermit Davis, Jr., got the Ole Miss basketball job, I introduced him to my dad. Kermit and I are the same age and we have something else in common. My dad was Babe McCarthy’s first assistant coach when he joined him in Baldwyn. Kermit Davis, Sr., was Babe McCarthy’s first basketball signee at Mississippi State.
I’ve surely always appreciated Babe, who died of cancer at age 51 in our Mississippi hometown after being a head coach in the professional ranks, for getting my dad to Baldwyn. Otherwise, of course, I wouldn’t be here.
Five years ago a Mississippi Department of Archives and History marker was dedicated to Coach McCarthy in downtown Baldwyn. On Babe’s day, my dad was one of the ones who helped with the unveiling. Kermit Davis, Sr., was there, as was MSU, Boston Celtics great, and Mississippi men’s basketball trophy namesake Bailey Howell. So was my sportswriting friend Rick Cleveland, and a number of Babe’s friends and family members.
When the ceremony ended, I watched Kermit, Sr., and Bailey have a conversation on the sidewalk with the Baldwyn High boys basketball team, 65 years after Babe had coached that same program at his alma mater.
I could only think, “What a moment,” as two of Babe’s greatest players talked to a Baldwyn team of both black and white players about basketball. There was interest and attentiveness from all as basketball was the bond, and nothing else mattered.
I thought of the opportunities those young men now have because of the courageous actions of Mississippians like Babe McCarthy when others would not have dared.
We find ourselves at a crossroads again, Mississippi, as we begin the third decade of the 21st century.
Mississippi’s flag must be changed and changed now.
Changing the state flag is right for every reason. It should be a flag that represents all Mississippians.
Some say perhaps sports shouldn’t be a focal point. Sports is always a focal point.
My friendships with Coolidge Ball and Peggie Gillom-Granderson, the first male and female black athletes at Ole Miss, have always meant so much to me. I feel I’m in the presence of greatness when I visit with them, not just because of their extraordinary basketball talents but because of the people they are and the path they chose that others dared not – or could not.
The SEC and NCAA involvement the past few days has clearly raised the stakes. Can you imagine how difficult recruiting will be now for all of Mississippi’s colleges and universities and their coaches if the state flag isn’t retired now and changed now?
Can you imagine, since the SEC has drawn the first line in the sand, that if state elected officials don’t act on this, change it with their own votes as elected officials, and bring to life a new Mississippi flag, or at the very least retire the current one, the following question being a potential scenario?
“Who are the former charter members of the SEC who no longer reside in a Power Five conference?”
Right now that number is two: Sewanee and Tulane.
It cannot become four.
That cannot happen. And elected officials know that.
The year 2020 will be remembered for a lot of things. But the Mississippi legislature, Speaker, Lt. Gov. and Governor will only be remembered for one:
Either changing the state flag immediately and allowing all Mississippians to move forward together. Or leaving it as it is, the SEC eventually potentially dismissing the two Mississippi schools, and the economic and emotional life of this state, the bright future that it should have, dies at that moment.
And please don’t give me the “We’re charter members” line. If they want us, they keep us. If not, we’re gone. Bank on it.
Rarely have Mississippi State and Ole Miss ever been more aligned than in their desire to change the state flag. Many times our universities act, both on the field and off, as though one must fail for the other to succeed. But on this, we see that our fate is bound together. Either we change the flag, or we all suffer.
The choice to do the right thing rests with the elected officials, Mississippi’s leaders, and the time is right now.
You do not want the eternal stain of miscalculating the importance of this now on your hands or your legacies. And I know you know that.
The earlier efforts of Babe McCarthy, James Meredith, Peggie Gillom-Granderson, Coolidge Ball, and other courageous Mississippians demand that we follow their leads now and into a greater future for everyone in this state.