If there’s anything more intertwined with the complicated and mysterious soul of Mississippi than the Confederate flag, it is college sports. When the two found themselves in conflict last month, the flag lost and sports made Mississippi a better place.
The rebel army’s battle banner had occupied the upper left field of Mississippi’s flag for 126 years. Generations of civil rights groups and advocates for Black people toiled unsuccessfully for its removal as the right and decent thing. A 2001 statewide referendum on retiring the flag failed by nearly a 2-to-1 ratio.
Things changed quickly, however, when the nationally recognized emblem of White supremacy meant Mississippi could no longer host marquee intercollegiate sports tournaments.
It started June 18 when Greg Sankey, commissioner of the powerhouse Southeastern Conference, announced that until the flag is retired, neither of Mississippi’s SEC members – Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) – could be sites for postseason play.
“The movement was dead in the water until Sankey came out with that letter,” said Rick Cleveland, a sportswriting legend in Mississippi who has covered state flag issues his entire career. Sankey got state policymakers’ attention, but it carried little consequence since the SEC holds no tournaments or championships in the state.
The next day, the hammer dropped. The National Collegiate Athletics Association banned all regional tournaments of any kind from any state that displays the Confederate flag, meaning it applied only to Mississippi. That left a mark.
Though football is king, Mississippi plays really good baseball. Ole Miss, State and the University of Southern Mississippi perennially finish among college baseball’s best and have been venues for regional and super-regional tournaments for years. Each school has a large, modern showplace ballpark, and the multi-team tournaments pump millions of tourist dollars each May to Oxford, Starkville and Hattiesburg, respectively.
“Those had pretty much become a rite of spring,” Cleveland said.
It also meant that women’s basketball juggernaut Mississippi State could not host postseason play, nor could Ole Miss’s softball team.
It got worse. Kylin Hill, a star Mississippi State football player who is Black, threatened to sit out the coming season unless the Confederate banner – a totem for African Americans of human bondage, lynchings, institutional disenfranchisement, systemic penury, segregated schools, substandard housing, high unemployment and more – disappears. Coaches, athletic directors and presidents or chancellors at the state’s public universities, all of which have refused to fly the flag on their campuses for years, united at the Statehouse on June 25 to lobby for the change.
Momentum built. Daily columns and stories by Cleveland and others chronicled the gathering cyclone. Major national brands with significant Mississippi interests weighed in, calling for a new flag. So did Mississippi’s dominant religious denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention.
“In Mississippi, if you’ve got college sports and the Baptists behind you, something’s going to get done,” Cleveland said.
The state’s Republican House speaker, Philip Gunn, had been advocating a flag change for years, warning that it puts Mississippi business at a disadvantage, but he could not muster the necessary votes. This time, it was different. Gunn and the state Senate’s GOP leadership were able to whip up the two-thirds majorities in each chamber necessary to introduce a new bill so close to the legislature’s late-June adjournment. Gov. Tate Reeves, also a Republican, signed the bill into law.
While the move aggrieved some Whites in Mississippi and beyond, Black Mississippians (at 38 percent, the highest proportion of any state) rejoiced. The NCAA, the SEC and Conference USA (to which USM and Old Dominion belong) publicly hailed the move and instantly restored Mississippi’s schools to full fellowship.
“Sports has often taught Mississippians lessons on race relations,” Cleveland said, recalling how it smoothed integration his senior year in high school in Hattiesburg. “Sports happens right there in front of you. You’d have to be blind not to see how Blacks and Whites could work together and be the better for it.”
Cleveland also glimpsed it in the early 1980s at The (Jackson) Clarion-Ledger when he was among a sizeable encampment of sports journalists from across the nation reporting from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where the nation’s most prized football prospect, Marcus Dupree, was finishing a record-smashing high school career.
Celebrity coaches from every college power swarmed the city for a year trying to land Dupree, who signed with Barry Switzer and the Oklahoma Sooners. Less than two decades after the murders of three civil rights workers made Philadelphia nationally infamous, Dupree, who is Black, became the small town’s consensus hero. As Yazoo City-born author Willie Morris recounted in “The Courting of Marcus Dupree,” White boys playing sandlot football would argue over who got to be “Marcus,” No. 22, and noted that one of Dupree’s most enthusiastic supporters was the son of a former deputy sheriff who was convicted in the civil rights workers’ slayings.
I experienced sports’ transformative powers in Mississippi as a member of the Ole Miss Rebels football team, playing alongside the school’s first African American players in the mid-1970s. As a deep snapper, I took part in the paradoxical spectacle of celebrating touchdowns with Black teammates as fans waved thousands of small Confederate flags in the stands and sang along as the marching band played “Dixie.”
But during that time, I saw the grace, goodness and humanity of my Black teammates dramatically soften racial attitudes there. Though the Rebels nickname remains (for now), the flags, any derivation of “Dixie” and the trademarked cartoon mascot of a planter with a cane and oversized homburg are gone. The mascot was first replaced by a bear and now by a “Landshark.”
Time in Mississippi meanders as slowly as the Tallahatchie River, and attitudes drift along at the same lazy pace.
When Cleveland was writing about the flag change shortly before the 2001 referendum, he said, readers’ reactions were chilling.
“I wrote one column that came out really strong on the need to get rid of it, and I’ll never forget it because of the volume of hate mail and two death threats I got,” he said. “One guy said he knew where I dropped my kids off at school.”
Now retired from the Clarion-Ledger and after a stint leading the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, Cleveland has been arguably the foremost thought leader on the flag issue, writing columns almost daily about it for Mississippi Today, a well-regarded nonprofit statewide online news organization.
“This time, … the reaction has been about 95 percent positive – really positive,” he said. “Very few negatives, but we still have a few peckerwoods out there.
“I think hearts have changed,” he said. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do here in Mississippi, but y’all got a lot of work to do in Virginia. So does Chicago and Minneapolis and Texas and Arizona.”
Rick paused a moment. “A lot has changed since you and I were in college.”