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Mississippi's stand on Confederate battle flag has ebbed and flowed with times

TIM ISBELL

ttisbell@sunherald.com

TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALDThe Confederate battle flag is on the upper left-hand corner of the Mississippi flag. The Confederate emblem, which is a symbol of divisiveness for some and a symbol of heritage for others, is the reason the state flag has been removed from college campuses in Mississippi.
TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALDThe Confederate battle flag is on the upper left-hand corner of the Mississippi flag. The Confederate emblem, which is a symbol of divisiveness for some and a symbol of heritage for others, is the reason the state flag has been removed from college campuses in Mississippi. THE SUN HERALD

The Confederate battle flag flew over the battlefields of a divided country during the 1860s and over a racially divided nation during the Jim Crow and civil rights era of the 1960s. But it no longer will fly over several college campuses in the state.

The Mississippi flag, which features the Confederate battle flag in the upper-left corner or canton, was taken down at the Ole Miss campus Monday.

This came after votes by the university's student government, faculty and staff to remove it from the Oxford campus. The University of Southern Mississippi followed suit Wednesday. Jackson State University, Mississippi Valley State University and Alcorn State University had already removed the state flag from their campuses.

"As Mississippi's flagship university," said Ole Miss Interim Chancellor Morris Stocks, "we have a deep love and respect for our state. Because the flag remains Mississippi's official banner, this was a hard decision. I understand the flag represents tradition and honor to some. "But to others, the flag means that some members of the Ole Miss family are not welcomed or valued."

It is hard to argue with Stocks' assertion. Even before the Confederate battle flag was designed, the state chose to secede from the Union and eventually join the Confederate States of America. The reason for Mississippi's secession is clearly stated in its Articles of Secession.

"Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery -- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin."

Strong association

The battle flag was once synonymous with Ole Miss; it was waved at football games for decades as a symbol of Southern pride.

But it also was viewed as a symbol of racism.

In October 1962, the flag was waved as James Meredith attempted to become the first black student at Ole Miss.

U.S. marshals were sent to Mississippi to make sure a judge's order to admit Meredith was carried out.

What ensued was an all-night riot with two killed, scores injured and property damaged.

As tear gas hung over the Circle on the Ole Miss campus, Meredith was escorted to his first class by weary marshals. Constance Baker Motely, Meredith's attorney, said the attempts to keep Meredith out of Ole Miss and the subsequent rioting over her client's enrollment constituted the "last battle of the Civil War." It occurred almost 100 years after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

Origins of battle flag

The battle flag, or Beauregard flag, was never the official Confederate banner. The first banner was the Stars and Bars, which featured a circle of stars on a blue field along with two red stripes and a white stripe.

But this flag was hard to distinguish from the Union flag on the battlefield, which caused confusion amongst the ranks. After First Bull Run, P.G.T. Beauregard advocated using a standardized battle flag rather than the Stars and Bars. Beauregard "resolved then to have (our flag) changed if possible, or to adopt for my command a 'battle flag,' which would be entirely different from any State or Federal flag." Beauregard worked with Joseph E. Johnston and William Porcher Miles to create what is now known as the Confederate battle flag.

The flag was square with a red background. A blue saltire, or southern cross, went from corner to corner. Inside the blue cross were 13 white stars. Women donated silk from their dresses so the first three flags could be made. Due to the color of the silk, the flags had a more pink hue than red.

Confederate battle flag

Although called the battle flag, it wasn't the only battle flag of the Confederacy. Patrick Cleburne's troops were easily identified with the distinctive blue flag with a white full moon. Earl Van Dorn's troops used their own battle flag, which had a red background, a crescent moon in the left corner and 13 white stars.

Thanks to Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, Confederate victories became commonplace and Southern pride soared. The Stars and Bars was designed to resemble Old Glory, but any homage to the old flag lessened as Southerners rallied around their new identity. For many during and after the war, the Confederate battle flag was part of that identity.

After the surrender, that identity and the flag were kept alive by post-war heritage groups looking to honor the Southern soldier and fallen warriors. In 1904, the United Confederate Veterans issued a report proclaiming the square Beauregard flag as "the Confederate battle flag." Such a move cast aside all other battle flags used by the Confederacy. The United Daughters of the Confederacy also promoted the "correct" square battle flag pattern over the rectangular version.

As Reconstruction came to an end in 1876, Southern Democrats moved to retake the power they had before and during the American Civil War. Gone were the Federal troops of occupation as a new era began that greatly resembled the era leading up to the Civil War.

Laws were passed to disenfranchise blacks in the state. John Marshall Stone, who served as governor from 1876 to 1882 and from 1890 to 1896, was the first Democratic governor since the terms of Adelbert Ames, James Alcorn and Ridgely Powers. Ames was a Union soldier who served as military governor of Mississippi after the war and was later elected governor.

In 1890, a new state constitution was adopted. It was a product of the new white majority that strived to lessen the influence of the federal government and black residents in local government.

1894 state flag

The Magnolia flag, adopted in 1861 during the first secession convention, fell victim to a post-war effort to revoke and repeal many of the actions taken by the Secession Convention of 1861. From 1865 to 1894, Mississippi had no state flag.

On Jan. 22 1894, Stone sent a written message to the legislature calling for a state flag. By Feb. 6, 1894, a joint legislative committee sent Stone a description of a proposed new state flag. That is what became the current state flag.

The description was "One with width two-thirds of its length, with the union square in width, two-thirds of the width of the flag; the ground of the union to be red and a broad blue saltire thereon bordered with white and emblazoned with thirteen (13) mullets or five-pointed stars, corresponding to the number of the original States of the Union; the field to be divided into three bars of equal width, the upper one blue, the center one white, the lower one red; the national colors; the staff surmounted with a spear-head and battle-axe below; the flag to be fringed with gold, and the staff gilded with gold."

Sen. E.N. Scudder of Mayersville is credited with designing the new flag. Scudder's daughter, in a 1924 address to the Mississippi United Daughters of the Confederacy, said her father included the Beauregard flag to honor Confederate soldiers. "My father loved the memory of the valor and courage of those brave men who wore grey. He told me 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."

On Feb. 7, 1894, Stone, a former colonel of the Second Mississippi Infantry during the Civil War, signed into law the bill creating the state flag.

Civil rights movement

The battle flag had renewed vigor in the late 1940s as President Harry Truman vowed to do more to promote civil rights. During World War II, black soldiers had fought and died in foreign lands for the concept of freedom but did not have the same freedom in America.

In response to Truman's efforts, the membership in the Ku Klux Klan surged, as did use of the battle flag. Southern politicians displayed it to show their disdain for Truman and civil rights policies. It became an emblem to rail against government and civil rights and to promote white supremacy.

In 1948, the United Daughters of the Confederacy sought to protect the battle flag from improper use. The UDC condemned use of the flag "in certain demonstrations of college groups and some political groups." It launched an effort to protect the flag from "misuse." Some Southern states passed laws to punish desecration of it. All these efforts proved futile as more and more groups used it as a symbol for their contempt.

In the 1960s, the civil rights movement began to take shape, pitting black people and civil rights activists across the nation against the Southern ruling class. The battle flag was used as a Southern symbol of resistance to the movement. The flag that was born over a divided country was being used again as a symbol of supremacy and division.

As schools were integrated in the 1970s, the battle flag was waved to show opposition for such rulings as Brown v. Board of Education. Blacks equated the banner with slavery and noted its use by such groups as the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, to whom it was a symbol of their commitment to white supremacy.

Falling out of favor

In 1983, John Hawkins, the first black cheerleader at Ole Miss, declared he would not wave the Rebel flag at Ole Miss football games. State Rep.

Aaron Henry introduced a bill in 1988 to remove the emblem from the state flag. The bill was never brought to a vote by the state legislature. Henry re-introduced the bill in 1990, 1992 and 1993.

In 1998, Ole Miss no longer allowed the battle flag at football games or to be sold on campus. "We went from a stadium full of flags to a stadium with no flags," former Ole Miss chancellor Robert Khayat said.

The way to rid the stadium of battle flags was to ban pointed sticks from the stadium. Toward the end of Khayat's tenure, the Ole Miss mascot Colonel Reb also was retired.

Ole Miss has continued to take steps to distance itself from its divisive history. But such actions are hard for some. Like many universities across the South, Ole Miss has a strong Southern heritage. The University Greys were Ole Miss students who served in Company A of the 11th Mississippi Infantry. The Greys were decimated during Pickett's charge in the battle of Gettysburg. They suffered 100 percent casualties -- every man was either killed or wounded. A stained-glass window at Ventress Hall on the Ole Miss campus that overlooks the Grove near a Confederate statue in the Circle pays homage to the University Greys.

2001 statewide vote

There have been previous attempts to change the state flag or remove the battle flag from the banner. In 2001, the state voted on whether to keep the flag or adopt an alternative banner. Voters chose to keep it.

Calls for change grew louder in summer 2015 after the shooting of nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. The gunman had posted pictures of himself on social media holding the Confederate battle flag.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called for the removal of the battle flag from the grounds of that state's statehouse. Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn called for a change in Mississippi. "We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us. As a Christian, I believe our state's flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed. We need to begin having conversations about changing Mississippi's flag."

The words of Robert E. Lee

The actions at Ole Miss this week will cause more debate between those who seek to honor Confederate heritage and those wanting a new beginning. Perhaps words by Robert E. Lee could serve as a guide.

After Appomattox, Lee counseled Southerners to "abandon all these local animosities, and make your sons Americans."

When Lee was asked to attend a meeting by the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, he declined. "I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered."

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