My Confederate flag is tucked next to high school track trophies and teen knick-knacks in a well-worn box that somehow followed me through two marriages, three states and four houses.
I was raised in Baton Rouge and hunted in Mississippi. I often drove a truck, wore boots, played football and drank beer. I was a son of the South in many ways.
My having the flag would probably shocks my friends who know me as a national, progressive political consultant who now lives in Washington, D.C., and who has been on the losing side of flag elections for a decade and a half.
In 2001 I worked for Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove during a referendum on whether to take the Confederate battle cross off the state flag. My job was to determine a message and create media to convince Mississippians to change the flag. Our poll showed the argument that got us closest to 50 percent was “if we let outsiders force a change in our flag, the new law will forbid any other confederate monuments or names be changed.” The argument that breached the spirit of the flag referendum and was counterintuitive was the best we had, and it only got us to 38 percent. I informed the governor that winning and moving Mississippi forward was impossible, at least for then. Years later I was proud to help Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree become the first African-American nominee for governor in Mississippi. He faced a torrent of latent and covert racial attacks, but I believe we moved a step closer to a better tomorrow.
I took what I learned in Mississippi to other Southern states. My work in Georgia was telling and heartbreaking. In this state where Hank Aaron received dozens of death threats just prior to breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record, then-Gov. Zell Miller simply suggested changing the state flag by nixing the Confederate portion from a bottom row of symbols on the flag, and the previously popular politician only won re-election by 1 percent.
Thereafter in South Carolina, Republican Gov. David Beasley oversaw the Confederate flag being removed from a pole atop the Capitol to be flown in a “place of honor” on the Capitol grounds atop a three-story flag pole with spotlights illuminating it 24 hours a day. Beasley lost his re-election campaign.
Thereafter my friend and mentor Roy Barnes, while governor of Georgia, had the state flag completely changed without any warning, and a true nightmare began. Confederate re-enactors began stalking Barnes at all hours of day and night. They permanently held a position in front of the Governor’s Mansion waving protest signs and many Confederate flags. They were at the Capitol steps when he arrived for work, and they chased him around the state, using his public schedule as a road map for harassment. Barnes would often nod courtly or wave to them. He tells a story that is telling. One day he waved over one of the Confederate-uniform-wearing protestors. “He came over and said, ‘Did you call for me, governor,’ ” Barnes recounts. “Yes, I did, and he asked me what I wanted. I asked him, ‘Son, when you re-enact the Civil War, do we still get our asses kicked?’ ”
Barnes tells the story slowly, as we’re wont to do in the South, and the punchline always elicits laughter. Turns out the protestor did not answer him.
Barnes lost re-election, and there is no question it is the flag that beat him. As the election results poured in, the margin of loss in rural Georgia was by historic numbers. As usual, Barnes carried Atlanta, but the suburbs that ring Atlanta, where he was raised, turned on him. In focus groups, people repeatedly excused their support of a symbol of division by stating it was their heritage. We knew that 60 percent of the people in the Atlanta media market were not from Georgia, so the heritage was actually just a mask for hatred.
Now in Mississippi there is again hope for change. South Carolina’s Republican governor and business leaders forced a heroic decision to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol grounds. Mississippi does not have the same level of leadership at the top, but it is time that the chamber of commerce and business interests apply political pressure on elected officials to do the right thing. Far too often, Mississippi makes news for the wrong reasons, and this stalwart and perhaps most famous of Southern states for being everything Southern can make a major statement by respecting the past but taking a major step toward the future. Some of the state’s most famous sons and daughters are calling for an end to the symbol that many find vitriolic. John Grisham, Archie Manning, Morgan Freeman, Jim Barksdale and Kathyrn Stockett — among others — are asking for Mississippi to be an even better place. They recognize that if a major percentage of a population is insulted by a symbol, then that symbol has no place in the public square. It will happen eventually, and it is best it happen now.
If my sons are indicative, the flag will be less prominent with every generation until we finally reach racial peace. I’ll never forget my then-fourth-grader explaining in detail what a friend of his was wearing in the carpool line so I could pick him up and take him to meet my son at soccer. When I pulled up, I realized his friend was the only African-American child in line. My son never considered using that as a description. It made me proud.
I was raised in the Deep South in a rare progressive white household where the N-word would have elicited an old-school whipping (another vestige of yesterday we’re fortunately leaving behind), but my home was the eye of a racist tornado that swirled around us in the early ’70s.
And during that time from some place I don’t recall, I ended up with a 4-by-6- foot Confederate flag. I have not thought of it in years until the horrific event in Charleston, South Carolina. But today I awoke on a business trip with an unsettling thought. If I should die before I wake, I pray to God my sons don’t find that flag through tear-glazed eyes while rummaging through a lifetime of treasures and trash in the unfinished portion of the basement. I’d be abhorred that they found a symbol counter to everything I’ve taught them and everything I’ve stood for and everything I would expect of the next generations of Strothers.
When I get home, I will toss the flag. You should too. It’s time.