SID SALTER: Mississippi’s remains more than a clash of symbols

The gentleman from Lucedale never uttered a word of profanity, but his phone call was intended to chew me out for daring to suggest in a positive review of former Ole Miss Chancellor Robert Khayat’s new book that he showed courage in trying to change the image of the university and by extension our state.

He repeatedly stated that Khayat’s efforts in addressing some of the university’s more controversial symbols were an attack on the state’s “history and heritage.” Four times, he returned to those phrases because I refused to agree with his point of view.

I reminded him of Mississippi’s long battle over symbolism and the utter futility of trying to find a solution that pleased everyone.

Three years ago, the state’s NAACP was trying to convince the Southeastern Conference not to hold tournaments in Mississippi because Mississippi’s state’s 1894 flag contains Confederate emblems. There were similar efforts in South Carolina.

Former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove led a controversial 2001 statewide referendum that gave Mississippi voters an opportunity to change the state flag’s 1894 design to a new one which deleted the Confederate battle flag’s “stars and bars.” Mississippi voters rejected the proposition of changing the state flag at the ballot box on April 17, 2001 by a 2-1 margin – 65 percent to 35 percent.
Black Mississippi voters were conspicuously absent and apathetic on the flag issue in 2001. Need evidence? Look at the Mississippi Delta region – the heart of our state’s black voter population.

In those counties, the 1894 flag won a 60 percent margin of approval. Statewide, the 1894 flag won 494,223 votes or 64.52 percent of the vote to 271,728 votes or 35.48 percent of the vote for the proposed “new” design.

Now, as Khayat’s book debuts, Ole Miss is having another debate over symbolism as the current student’s debate whether the male student elected each fall should be called – as he traditionally has been – “Colonel Rebel” or whether that named should change to “Mr. Ole Miss.”

Here’s a novel idea. Let the kids work it out among themselves.

Mississippi’s “history and heritage” is about far more than flags and songs and titles.

The story of our state can’t be told in old songs and symbols. Mississippi’s great bewildering story can best be told in the evolution of our people – all of our people – and that story relies first on the certain knowledge that our symbols mean different things to different people.

The mistake comes when some of us refuse to embrace all of our “history and heritage” – not just the parts that make us feel either pride or shame.

SID SALTER is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.

  • Kevin

    Musgrove and Khayat both approached change with kid gloves. I believe they both had the power to make very unpopular decisions, but instead punted those ideas toward the general public. It was a way for them to save face even though their intentions angered many. Ever since I began visiting Mississippi as a youth back in the 1980s and after having lived there through my 20s and early 30s, all I ever hear ad infinitum is “heritage, heritage, heritage.” People talk about it like it’s a religious belief and once you get into the actual history through primary sources, you find that all this heritage gunk is just not factual, but made up. Mississippi’s no different from other societies. People try to hide the unseemly parts of their history because doing so makes them feel better about their collective sense of identity. Historians call it an unending search for a past that can be used as opposed to a past that people want to forget, i.e. lynchings, widespread state-sanctioned racial discrimination, inbreeding, government corruption, etc.

  • Kevin

    Musgrove and Khayat both approached change with kid gloves. I believe they both had the power to make very unpopular decisions, but instead punted those ideas toward the general public. It was a way for them to save face even though their intentions angered many. Ever since I began visiting Mississippi as a youth back in the 1980s and after having lived there through my 20s and early 30s, all I ever hear ad infinitum is “heritage, heritage, heritage.” People talk about it like it’s a religious belief and once you get into the actual history through primary sources, you find that all this heritage gunk is just not factual, but made up. Mississippi’s no different from other societies. People try to hide the unseemly parts of their history because doing so makes them feel better about their collective sense of identity. Historians call it an unending search for a past that can be used as opposed to a past that people want to forget, i.e. lynchings, widespread state-sanctioned racial discrimination, inbreeding, government corruption, etc.

  • Kevin

    Musgrove and Khayat both approached change with kid gloves. I believe they both had the power to make very unpopular decisions, but instead punted those ideas toward the general public. It was a way for them to save face even though their intentions angered many. Ever since I began visiting Mississippi as a youth back in the 1980s and after having lived there through my 20s and early 30s, all I ever hear ad infinitum is “heritage, heritage, heritage.” People talk about it like it’s a religious belief and once you get into the actual history through primary sources, you find that all this heritage gunk is just not factual, but made up. Mississippi’s no different from other societies. People try to hide the unseemly parts of their history because doing so makes them feel better about their collective sense of identity. Historians call it an unending search for a past that can be used as opposed to a past that people want to forget, i.e. lynchings, widespread state-sanctioned racial discrimination, inbreeding, government corruption, etc.