Following June’s Charleston church shooting perpetrated by Dylann Roof, a disgruntled 21-year year old who was racially motivated and inspired by the Confederate battle flag, the flag has been brought back to the forefront of political discussion, and for good reason.
The symbolism of the flag has been debated to death—whether it represents Southern pride and culture or whether it represents the slavery and treason of the rebellion Civil War alliance it once flew above—but what cannot be debated is the divisiveness of the flag.
The interpretation of the flag is divided almost directly along party lines. According to a CNN/ORC poll conducted this summer, 66 percent of white people in the United States view the flag as a symbol of Southern pride, while 72 percent of black people in the United States view it as a symbol of racism.
Regardless of your personal perception, this schism in interpretation where half of the public finds the flag discriminatory should be enough to remove the flag from public grounds. Government is about unity and nothing about the Confederate flag is unifying.
South Carolina took a step in the right direction when they removed the flag from the grounds of their statehouse in July. However, the flag remains prominent in the public sphere of other states—including Mississippi, a state whose official state flag actually contains the Confederate flag in its upper-left corner.
So when the Ole Miss campus, the largest public university in Mississippi, removed the flag from its grounds last week, they were right to do so, right?
The school’s decision to lower the state flag came after weeks of protests from students at the school and seems commendable, but as a public state university refusing to fly the official banner of the state whose taxes fund their institution, the situation gets dicey.
According to a Mississippi statute, “the state flag should receive all of the respect and ceremonious etiquette given the American flag.” By flying the United States flag at the campus and refusing to fly the Mississippi flag, the university is breaching this statute and could reasonably expect legal repercussions for not showing patronage toward its state government.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant was quoted as saying, “I believe publicly funded institutions should respect the law as it is written today.”
A fellow Republican, State Senator Chris McDaniel added that “It’s our state flag, first by adoption then by referendum. Ole Miss should fly it, as long as they remain a publicly funded university.”
They are not wrong. As the state’s flagship university, they need to adhere to the state government. It is not the university’s role to make political statements, even under the pressure of their student body. Instead, the university should advise the student protesters to redirect their efforts toward the state government, the way that South Carolina protesters did over the summer when they pressured the legislature to vote to lower the Confederate flag.
Perhaps students at Ole Miss should take a page out of the playbook of Brittany Newsome, a South Carolina protester who scaled the flagpole at the state capitol to remove the flag. Or gather as a crowd of hundreds did in a demonstration outside the capitol in South Carolina in early July.
Government typically moves slowly, but when there is enough of a political movement and enough pressure from the populace, the legislative process can be expedited. South Carolina took its flag down in mere weeks following intensified rallies to create change.
The people of Mississippi can, and should, pressure its government to remove such a divisive characteristic of its flag. This should be a process done by a movement of individuals dealing with the state directly, not by a public university ignoring its direct authority and taking matters into its own hands.