Don’t burn the flag

F lames that consumed a Mississippi State flag Monday in front of the Governor’s Mansion could also incinerate hope for the very thing protestors claim to want: Changing the controversial symbol.

The Associated Press reported that about 30 demonstrators with the Poor People’s Campaign set fire to a Confederate battle flag and then a separate Mississippi State flag, which contains the emblem of the Confederacy in one corner.

“This flag needs to come down,” organizer Danyelle Holmes of Jackson was quoted as saying. “This flag needs to burn. We’re burning the hate out of their hearts. We’re burning the hate out of our state.”

On the contrary, this extremist action only further chars relations between flag supporters and opponents, making a compromise even less likely.

For years, this newspaper has advocated – in disagreement with many, probably even a majority of our readers – for changing Mississippi’s state flag to something that better represents all of our people. To the 38 percent of our state’s population that is black, the flag is usually seen as a reminder of past racial injustices that have haunted us for generations. That viewpoint needs to be respected, even if we disagree with it.

The flag is also seen as a sign to outsiders, who might consider moving to or doing business in Mississippi, that the state has not really changed, overshadowing the ample progress in race relations that has been made over the past half century.

Yet a 2001 referendum showed 64 percent of voters wanted to keep the existing flag. That percentage would probably be roughly the same today. Most of the flag supporters say they do not hold any racial animus but rather see the Confederate emblem as respecting their ancestors and representing the state they love. That viewpoint needs to be respected, too, even if we disagree with it.

Yet flag burners needlessly insult that position at a time when momentum has been building for changing the flag. All eight of the state’s public universities have removed it from their campuses, and many prominent Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, have called for it to be moved to history museums.

Mississippi, and all of the United States, needs people of opposing viewpoints to be able to sit down and debate their differences in a rational way. Burning flags, even though it is constitutionally protected free speech, does not accomplish that end.

As the Apostle Paul said, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify (1 Cor. 10:23).”

The next verse is also relevant to Mississippi’s flag debate: “Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being.”

If Mississippians could adopt that attitude, we’d be well on the way to putting the flag issue behind us, and moving forward together.