Studio portrait of Sid Salter. (photo by Beth Wynn / © Mississippi State University)
By: Sid Salter
Mississippi’s tense and emotional public debate of removing the Confederate Battle Flag from the canton corner of the state flag evoked some of the more startling lessons of history regarding the evolution of racial views by individuals and by institutions.
Let’s stop here and applaud the leadership and vision of House Speaker Philip Gunn for stepping into the flag change arena early and courageously. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann fought hard to get the flag change legislation to the finish line in the Senate. Sen. Briggs Hopson and Rep. Jason White were key players. There were many others who stepped up.
Gov. Tate Reeves removed the final obstacle facing the Legislature should they choose to act with courage to change the flag rather than punting the issue to a more politically expedient referendum. That was a critical move.
But in the broader sense, change on bedrock social and racial issues is a slow process both in and out of the halls of government. Mississippi isn’t the only witness to that reality.
Distinguished Howard University historian Edna Greene Medford recounted in a 2010 lecture entitled “Lincoln’s Evolving Racial Views” at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library in Fremont, Ohio, that three days before his assassination, President Abraham Lincoln gave a speech from the White House balcony in which he forcefully advocated the extension of political and voting rights to African Americans.
That in an of itself is not surprising and well in keeping with Lincoln’s reputation as “The Great Emancipator” and “Father Abraham” in leading the nation through the Civil War and preserving the union while abolishing slavery in the U.S.
What is surprising was the revelation in Medford’s lecture that seven years earlier in Charleston, Illinois, during one of Lincoln’s famous seven debates with Democratic rival Stephen Douglas when both were seeking the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois. Douglas accused Lincoln of being a supporter of Black equality, to which Lincoln replied:
“I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races… I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes (sic), nor of qualifying them to hold office… there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”
Lincoln moved away from his former campaign rhetoric and toward unity and reconciliation when the bonds of the American union were tested and strained.
In Mississippi today, the flag change enacted by the Legislature will require more steps and more participation by Mississippi voters. As with any compromise, not everyone’s happy with the outcome and final legislation.
Can the opponents of legislative flag change, who claimed days ago to be representing the majority, accede to the will and wisdom of the vast majority of our elected representatives and senators in the Legislature? That remains to be seen.
State Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, was the major legislative opponent in recent days to legislative flag change. In floor debate, he interjected every possible obstacle. He told the media days before the vote that he and “20 or 21” senators were “holding the line” against legislative flag change.
That ultimately wasn’t the case. For a third time, twice in U.S. Senate campaigns at the ballot box and now again on the floor of the state Senate, McDaniel’s demagoguery was firmly rejected.
But the weekend legislative drama should not be remembered as an instance in which McDaniel and other opponents of flag change lost.
This time, in the nick of time, Mississippi won. Our children and grandchildren won.