“Mississippi’s official state flag with the embedded Confederate battle flag is tantamount to hateful government speech that both has a discriminatory intent and disparate impact,” the six-page lawsuit declares. “The current official state flag … encourages or incites private citizens to commit acts of racial violence.”
Mississippi is the only state that incorporates the Confederate battle flag into its state flag.
“Plaintiff fears for his safety and the safety of other African-Americans because of the state sanctioned hate speech communicated through the current flag,” the lawsuit states.
The suit, filed against Gov. Dewey “Phil” Bryant (R), says the governor should be ordered by the court to remove the state flag from all government buildings. On Monday evening a spokesman for Bryant decried the lawsuit.
“This is a frivolous attempt to use the federal court system to usurp the will of the people,” said Clay Chandler, Bryant’s spokesman. “The governor hopes Attorney General Jim Hood will seek attorneys fees to reimburse taxpayers the cost of defending against this needless drain on state resources.”
The lawsuit comes after several Southern states debated their continued display of Confederate flags, monuments and other imagery — spurred largely by the mass shooting of black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., last June.
Officials in South Carolina and Alabama agreed to remove Confederate battle flags displayed prominently on state grounds, and state lawmakers in Mississippi began discussing whether they should redesign their state flag to remove the Confederate imagery.
Twelve different bills to change the flag were introduced by various state lawmakers — with options ranging from soliciting submissions from college students to reverting to an older version of the flag — but each of the bills stalled in committee and none were brought to the floor before a deadline last Tuesday.
“We thought the legislature would go ahead and take the flag down,” Moore said in an interview Monday. Moore said he has discussed the lawsuit with officials at the local NAACP as well as the National Bar Association. “But it seems our only option is to challenge it in court.”
There have been at least two other federal court lawsuits in which black residents have sued a Southern state over the public display of Confederate imagery.
In 1990, the NAACP unsuccessfully filed a lawsuit against the state of Alabama, challenging its right to fly the Confederate battle flag above the state capitol building.
“It is unfortunate that the State of Alabama chooses to utilize its property in a manner that offends a large proportion of its population,” the appeals court panel wrote in its decision declining to force the state to remove the flag. “But that is a political matter which is not within our province to decide.”
Then, in 1997, a U.S. District Court judge ruled against a plaintiff in Georgia, saying that the lawsuit failed to prove that the flag, which at the time included the Confederate battle flag, had created a disparate effect on black residents.
“The only statement about the flag that all may agree upon, therefore, is that the flag fails as a unifying symbol for citizens of Georgia,” Judge Orinda Evans wrote. “This fact does not subject the flag to judicial scrutiny absent specific and concrete examples that the flag cause a disparate effect on African Americans.”
Five years later, legislators in Georgia changed the state flag to rid it of Confederate imagery
“In the past cases, the rulings noted that plaintiffs needed to show that the flag promoted racial violence,” Moore said. “We have incidents in Mississippi that show that clearly.”
Moore’s lawsuit cites the mass shooting in Charleston, as well as the Nov. 3, 2015, bombing of a Walmart in Mississippi by a white man who told police he did it because the store stopped selling Confederate flags. The suit also notes the deaths of Otis Byrd and Frederick Jermaine Carter, black men who were found hanged last year and in 2010, respectively. While authorities have ruled both deaths suicides, each death sparked protests and widespread belief among black residents that the men may have been lynched.
Moore also notes that a former student at Ole Miss was sentenced last September to six months in federal prison for hanging a noose and a version of the old Georgia flag containing the Confederate battle flag around the neck of a statue of James Meredith, the University of Mississippi’s first black student.
“We have specific incidents we’re going to point to in order to say that this flag is promoting racial violence,” Moore said. “And we believe that the results of our lawsuit could be different than those in the past.”
This post has been updated.