Another lawsuit over state flag
I f it seems like Mississippi has traveled this ground before, it’s because it has.
A federal lawsuit filed last week asks a judge to prevent the Gulf Coast city of Ocean Springs from flying the state flag, claiming it is “racially demeaning and hostile” because it includes the Confederate battle emblem.
Apparently the state flag is a new issue in Ocean Springs because for several years, when a Democratic mayor was in office, the city did not display it. But a Republican took over last summer and the flag returned. Ocean Springs aldermen then ordered the state flag to be flown at City Hall and other municipal buildings.
The new lawsuit claims that displaying the flag sends a message to black citizens “that they are second-class citizens and are not welcome in Ocean Springs.” The suit also says the very presence of the flag outside public buildings deters black people from either moving to Ocean Springs or visiting the city.
Both the lawsuit and the Wikipedia website say only 7.5 percent of Ocean Springs’ 17,600 population is black. But it’s impossible to believe that the reappearance of the Mississippi flag is the reason for this relatively low figure. It would be fascinating to hear testimony from anyone who says they don’t visit a town or county just because its government buildings display an admittedly controversial flag.
As noted above, Mississippi has already covered this territory. In 2016 an attorney sued in an attempt to have a federal judge declare the state flag unconstitutional. He claimed the flag’s Confederate symbol was hateful government speech that incites racial violence and violates the 14th Amendment protections of black residents.
The court did not buy the argument, and higher courts also were unconvinced. So it would seem that the Ocean Springs lawsuit will be memorable only for its very high probability of failure.
A federal or state court, in fact, is the worst possible place to decide this particular issue. The best place would be in the Legislature, since its members are the elected representatives of the people.
Unfortunately for those who would like to see the flag changed to a less divisive symbol, the legislative majority is unwilling to make a decision. Which is odd because the Legislature typically loves to be in control of state government. But members continually dodge this particular issue by noting that a 2001 referendum on the flag voted to keep the current one, and any change also should come through a referendum.
The state flag doesn’t help Mississippi’s reputation around the country.
But neither is it something that makes great numbers of black people feel threatened. It’s a flag, not a burning cross, and there’s a big difference.
If anything, the flag is a good example of the citizenry’s legendary stubbornness when being told what to do. It would be nice if the Legislature or the voters decided on their own to remove a symbol that has negative connotations to one-third of the population, and maybe that will happen one day. But the flag should not change by the order of a judge.