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The Flag, the Colonel and the Redskins

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This week the University of Mississippi’s men’s basketball team was eliminated from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in the round of 32.  That fact is nothing remarkable.  What is remarkable; however, is the dichotomy that exists in the state regarding the symbols used by the university and in the state flag and what that dichotomy tells us about our society.

The newly designed Mississippi state flag.
The newly designed Mississippi state flag.

In 2001 the state legislature in Mississippi passed a bill that would provide for a public referendum on changing the state’s flag’s design.  The issue that many people had with its design was that the canton of the flag had a representation of the Confederate Battle Flag.  A new design had been approved by the legislature which maintained all the other aspects of the flag except for the canton. The bill was signed into law and the people of Mississippi were asked to choose between the current design and the new design.

The referendum was held that November and at a margin of nearly two to one, the people of Mississippi chose to keep the 1894 design.  A resounding message was sent by the people of Mississippi that tradition was more important to them than being sensitive to the African-American citizens of the state.  This is not a damnation of all the citizens of Mississippi.  It would be just as narrow-minded as the vote on the flag was to lump them altogether.

Later that year, the University of Mississippi banned the Confederate flag at all its sporting events.  Two years later, the University of Mississippi’s regents voted to remove the school’s mascot, Colonel Reb.  The consensus was that the mascot was, “offensive and not representative of the student body at the University of Mississippi.”  The move was praised by some as a move by Mississippi to move forward in creating a diverse culture.  Denouncers of the change defended the mascot based on its tradition and argued that few if any were legitimately offended by the mascot.

A poll conducted by the student government showed the student body was indifferent to Colonel Reb.  The general population of the state, however, felt more strongly.  Boycotts of the university were called for.  Websites in defense of Colonel Red sprung up.  Critics of the university’s administration maintained that the administration was out of touch with the people of Mississippi and was making decisions against their wishes.

The fact is those critics are right about those claims.  The University’s administration was acting against the wishes of the majority.  However, banning the Confederate flag and Colonel Reb was still the right thing to do.  Despite an overwhelming majority that wanted to keep a flag bearing that symbol flying all over the state, the will of the people should not reign supreme in a situation like this.  This wouldn’t be the first time controversial decisions have been made contrary to the will of the public.

In the 1960s racial segregation was well entrenched in many states based on decades of tradition and the will of the majority.  Still, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The act outlawed segregation by race in all public arenas of life.  President Johnson enforced integration with armed soldiers and weathered the backlash.  It took federal legislation and armed soldiers to force the desperately needed change.  If Congress or President Johnson had waited for the will of the majority to favor the changes, segregation may still be a fact of life today.

The former mascot for Ole Miss, Colonel Reb.
The former mascot for Ole Miss, Colonel Reb.

We still have other mascots and symbols like Colonel Reb in our sports.  The Washington Redskins are a great example and probably the most easily recognized. Similar to the sentiments about Colonel Reb and the canton in the Mississippi state flag, fans hold to the team nickname and logo as tradition and claim that it doesn’t offend the majority of people.  Just like in those situations, however, those facts don’t make it right.  We’ve seen that historically the majority of Americans are resistant to change.  It is the responsibility of those whom hold the power to make these changes to make them, no matter how controversial.

It’s the responsibility of those whom are in positions of leadership to make tough, unpopular decisions.  It’s past time the use of Native American team nicknames or logos are banned across the board by our government.  This imagery and the ideology that accompany it have no place in a society that strives to offer equal opportunities to everyone regardless of their ancestry or ethnicity.  If the government waits until there is a wide scale outcry for this change, it may never come.