PHILADELPHIA, Miss. — The Confederate flag was on the run earlier this summer. It was coming down everywhere. National retailers stopped selling it. South Carolina’s legislature ordered it removed from the state capitol grounds. Momentum swelled across a nation horrified by a neo-Confederate’s killing of nine African Americans in a historic South Carolina church.
That sentiment swung into Mississippi, the last place in the nation to incorporate the emblem into its state flag. The state’s two U.S. senators, both Republicans, said the flag should go. A Mississippi-born leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, the bedrock faith of many of the state’s conservatives, wrote, “Let’s take down that flag.”
The powerful speaker of the State House of Representatives, Philip Gunn, became a national story when he said his Christian belief dictated that the flag “needs to be removed.” A handful of towns started removing it from city quarters. Even the Ole Miss football coach, whose team is named “the Rebels” for the Confederate troops of yore, said the flag should bite the dust.
Then The Moment met the rest of Mississippi.
Fans of the flag rallied. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (R) took a shot at Gunn, tweeting about the South Carolina gunman: “No symbol or flag or Web site or book or movie made him evil.” The governor, tea party favorite Phil Bryant, agreed, saying the flag should stay. But if a change were to be considered, each said that the state’s voters should decide the issue.
By the time the historic Neshoba County Fair rolled around, flag supporters had found their footing.
The grounds — where a campaigning Ronald Reagan once came to declare his belief in “states’ rights” — were festooned with state flags and Confederate banners. They were draped from many of the hundreds of cottages that ring the red-dirt horse-racing track. They lolled outside the RVs parked beneath the pines. They flapped from the back of pickup trucks.
“They just need to leave that flag alone,” said Bill McCrory, 35, watching the harness races on a sweltering Sunday afternoon. He was wearing a camo-colored Confederate-flag baseball cap, with “Join the Cause” on the front and “Rebel” on the back. “They think it’s racist, but it’s not.”
So when Gunn stepped to the podium at the fair, it heralded a notable moment in the state’s history. The man taking on the flag was not a carpetbagger or an outside agitator but one of the state’s most powerful conservatives.
“I see the ladies from the Philip Gunn fan club all around here,” Gunn began, playfully acknowledging flag wavers in the audience. “It is true that I voiced my opinion about the flag a few weeks ago and made my opinions known,” he continued.
Then Gunn, who declined to comment for this article, seemed to wilt, if not retreat.
“They are my opinions and my opinions alone,” he said in an offhand tone. “They don’t stand for anybody else. . . . The fact is we can’t do anything about the flag today. The legislature is not in session. There is no bill before us. It’s not on the ballot next Tuesday. It’s not on the ballot next November.”
And that was it.
Mississippi’s most powerful supporter of a new flag no longer seemed to be such a powerful supporter of a new flag. With the governor and lieutenant governor already on the record against it, prospects for removing the flag seemed as stagnant as a pool of Delta rainwater.
* * *
Sitting hard by the Mississippi River, the Confederate flag flies from the pole in front of Shawn Quick and Christine Councell’s one-story brick rancher.
The house sits in the middle of a riverfront industrial district. The landscape is railroad tracks and tanker cars, abandoned metal buildings. The air conditioning is out, so the conversation is on the semi-shaded front porch, with their pit bull, Coco, and her puppies. Their other adult pit, Dixie, was eaten by an alligator recently and carted off down the river.
It is 97 degrees.
The flag is emblazoned with “The South Will Rise Again.”
“I like it just for the history of it,” Quick says. “I’ve had it a long time. When we moved in, the pole was already there, so we put it up.”
Both are aware that some of their fellow Mississippians find the flag offensive.
“They just don’t know their history,” Councell says.
“You got that right,” Quick adds.
This is a common sentiment in white Mississippi — that the Confederate battle flag is a historic banner that embodies the noble service and sacrifice of men who fought for “states’ rights.”
The other side of states’ rights in Mississippi evokes the Black Codes, the Mississippi Plan, the pig law, prison farms, poll taxes, Jim Crow segregation and the killings of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers and the three civil rights workers. Mississippi’s Confederate veterans won the battle for white supremacy, built monuments to themselves in nearly every town and set in place a system of oppression that would last until the civil rights movement finally knocked it away.
A recent 1,100-mile trip through the state that included dozens of interviews revealed pockets of support for a new flag among whites, mostly in college towns and larger cities. Nearly all African Americans are against the existing flag, but doubt is widespread that change is within reach.
“My district would be in support of a new flag, but they’re like, ‘This has a snowball’s chance in hell,’ ” said Kimberly Campbell, a state House representative from the heavily African American Jackson area.
Deep in the heart of the Delta, dark clouds are moving across the sky in the distance. The overcast hangs like a curtain, visible for miles before it’s reached. Further on is the historic blues town of Clarksdale, one of the municipalities that has taken down the flag. Bill Luckett, the mayor, is an actor, lawyer and co-owner of a blues club with the actor Morgan Freeman, a native son. He’s also a white man elected by a populace that is 79 percent black.
There was no vote on the flag issue.
“I just checked with the city attorney to see if I had the authority, and I did, so I just did it,” Luckett says.
Aldermen in a few cities, including Columbus, Starkville and Hattiesburg, have voted to remove the flag after the Charleston shooting. Elsewhere, it’s complicated.
Washington County lies along the Mississippi on the south end of the Delta. It is 71 percent black. Its county board of supervisors voted 3 to 2 along racial lines to remove the state flag in 2001. But the board put it back up in 2012. And in July, the board voted to keep it up, again voting 3 to 2, this time with a black supervisor siding with two whites.
A group of more than 60 state notables, including Freeman, signed a full-page ad in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger this week advocating a new flag, an attempt to spur new momentum.
But several of the list’s big names — Freeman, John Grisham, Archie Manning, Kathryn Stockett — haven’t actually lived in the state for years, as commentators on the paper’s Web site wryly noted.
More importantly: Other than the NAACP, which has kept up a steady bid to dump the flag for more than two decades, there is no serious organization devoted to retiring the flag.
In the primary round of elections earlier this month — which included every elected office in the state — no campaign turned on the issue. Few candidates even mentioned it.
Whit Waide, a political science professor at Mississippi State whose family has been in Mississippi since statehood, said, “I would give up this job if it would mean a new state flag.”
He’s also well placed to help make that happen. His college roommate and best friend is Reeves, the lieutenant governor. If Reeves supported a bill for a new flag, along with Gunn, the House speaker, it would almost certainly pass.
“I love him. He’s my best friend,” Waide says, shaking his head. “And I just hate that he’s on the wrong side of this.”
Back at the Neshoba County Fair, Tommy Williams’s family has owned a cottage near the first turn of the racetrack for more than three decades. A retired administrator with the Mississippi Department of Health, he describes himself as a “Civil War historian” and thus has always flown a Confederate flag at the fair. He’s gracious on the subject and says he can certainly understand other points of view.
But when he takes a reporter onto the second-floor deck, the atmosphere changes.
He quiets down the all-white crowd, then announces that a reporter is here, writing about the flag.
Silence ensues. One man yells something angrily. Another leans forward and says, “They can get rid of the flag all right — just take the NAACP out of the state with it.”
Another sidles up, showing a cellphone photograph of a truck’s bumper sticker: “Don’t Blame Me — I voted for the White Guy.”
“How about that?” he says. “You ever see anything funny as that?”
Another man approached and politely said: “The Irish were bred with the African slaves, you know? Even the Irish, we were slaves. At some point, you just have to get over it.”
* * *
Dusk falls softly in Mississippi, the gloaming comes on and then night falls hard. Orange fires burn after midnight from a sawmill plant in hill country. Mist holds above the river.
The voices of Mississippi echo in these hours.
There’s Robert Khayat, the former chancellor at Ole Miss who single-handedly got the tens of thousands of fans to stop flying the Confederate flag at football games — by banning sticks inside the stadium. Could the state actually change its flag?
“That’d be a tough one,” he says.
Then Derrick Johnson, head of the state chapter of the NAACP: “The problem is not so much the flag as the mind-set it represents.”
Finally, there comes the soft Southern accent of David Sansing, Mississippi’s preeminent historian, now professor emeritus of history at the University of Mississippi.
“Mississippians do not study their past,” he says, “they absorb it.”
More faintly, “We’re a strange group.”
Fainter still, fading away now, talking about Mississippi’s eternal attitude toward the rest of the world: “We don’t really need you to like us.”