Other Opinions

Two flags will fly over Gulfport, but it’s time for one to go

Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes
Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes

We are better together. The holiday season is a time for reflection, as well as a period of preparation for a new year. As we count the many blessings we have, we cannot ignore the generational challenges our state faces, as well as the opportunities to take corrective measures, both great and small.

Just as words have weight, symbols have substance. In a reasonable society, one would expect to encounter a measure of respect and tolerance for differing views, statements and images. This approach does not require a changing of principles or minds, but an understanding that every difference of opinion is not a declaration of war.

The conflict over our state flag continues to stir emotions and invites debate on the need for change — or not. Like it, or not, what the Confederate battle flag might have meant generations ago, has evolved to a point in today’s world where it is largely viewed as a symbol of ignorance, hatred and bigotry. It is used on both sides of the political spectrum to incite violence.

We are better together.

Opponents of the present flag cite offense at the Confederate battle flag emblem (which did not originate in Mississippi), which has largely come to represent a hateful vestige of a distant past and a modern extremism. Proponents of keeping the flag provide historical nexus and reference a public referendum from 2001 when an overwhelming sentiment showed most Mississippians had no desire for change. While that should not be ignored, the context of the vote at that time must be considered.

People don’t typically embrace change for the sake of change. There has to be a compelling reason, desired result or emotional connection to it. That is one of the main reasons the referendum for a new flag in 2001 did not pass. The alternative symbol never managed to capture the imagination because it provided no relevant connection for our citizens. Had Mississippi’s first official flag, adopted in 1861 — the Magnolia Flag — been offered as a viable, historical alternative, the 2001 referendum might have delivered a different outcome.

Southerners of all races and creeds feel strongly about their heritage, but when an image is used to distort that history, perpetuate cultures of hatred, impede progress and stigmatize our great state to the point that businesses, developers and visitors take pause, it is time for us to find a resolution.

This debate is not to inhibit anybody’s right to free speech. However, it is important to recognize that our state flag has been unfairly used to chain us to a legacy we would be better off leaving behind. No revisionist history, but an acknowledgment that today’s Mississippi is much different from generations past. It is one of promise, knowing there will always be work to do, but in a state that places value in the individual, the dignity of work and the importance of character.

We are better together.

We are past the point in our history where we should be allowing others to tell our story. Yet, with perception driving reality we find ourselves, time and again, like crabs in a boiling pot, where each pulls the others down to die collectively, rather than build upon our assets and educate the world as to the wonderful place and people known as Mississippi. Not that we’re perfect, but that the imagery from long ago need no longer serve to wrongly define the exceptional relationships that have been forged across racial lines over decades.

The hallmarks of decency, civility and mutual respect hang in the balance in an America where too many are looking for reasons for outrage, rather than seeking common interests and solutions. It seems that, lately, the only thing that brings out the best in us is disaster or catastrophe. Mississippi should stand as an example on how to respond where there is need, and lead where there is opportunity.

A flag change will not totally unify us, but it will help to eliminate a hindrance to our progress as a state. There will always be those who would divide us because of our differences, but instead we should be celebrating our diversity and relishing the common ground that makes up our rich and unique cultural gumbo.

Whether the issue is settled by another public referendum, or by our elected representatives in Jackson, Gulfport will abide by that decision and fly the flag of our great state, as we do today. In the meantime, we will also fly the Magnolia Flag at City Hall on the chance our citizens can rally around a symbol that has a connection to the past, but represents renewal and promise for the future.

This is not about erasing the past. It’s about being honest about the present, and working toward a productive future. The reality is that Mississippi’s flag will be changed. The question is when, and into what? What better time to make a statement, than during our Bicentennial observance, as we embark upon the third century of the Magnolia State’s existence?

When it comes down to it, it’s not so much about what is on the flag. It’s about what brings us together, or divides us — and how we move forward, together.

  Comments