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The Nation

A New Fight Brews Over Confederate Battle Flag

Protest: Mississippi student vows to stay at county-owned site until the banner comes down. A public vote on the issue has been set.

September 19, 2002|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GULFPORT, Miss. — Classes started weeks ago, but Jason Whitfield is staying put on the beach.

For more than two months, the 21-year-old college student has kept vigil beneath a fluttering Confederate battle flag he says has no place being displayed at the county beach here. In his bid to get rid of it, Whitfield has become a central player in an emotional and escalating public tussle over the flag--an emblem of Southern heritage to admirers and a trademark of racist violence to foes.

Whitfield, who is black, and his allies say the battle flag carries a repugnant symbolism to so many people that it should not fly over land belonging to all. "Anyone who considers himself a God-fearing person should stand against this flag," Whitfield said, sitting on a folding chair near a sign proclaiming Mississippi's Gulf Coast the "Playground of the South."

Whitfield and others who want to remove the so-called rebel flag, which was carried onto the Civil War battlefield but was never the official banner of the Confederacy, have proposed replacing it with the First National Flag of the Confederate states. The replacement is less familiar--and less controversial--than the battle flag, but it would have more historical legitimacy, they say.

The Harrison County Board of Supervisors has voted to keep the familiar battle flag, red with a blue cross of St. Andrew containing 13 white stars. But in the face of mounting passions since Whitfield's protest, the supervisors decided this month to put the matter to a public vote, as a nonbinding referendum, when residents go to the polls Nov. 5.

Debating the proper place for the Confederate flag is hardly new in the South. Mississippi voters last year opted to keep the rebel flag emblem as part of the state flag. But amid the skirmishing here churns unease among business leaders who fear that the battle flag sends the wrong image about the modernizing Gulf region just as more tourists are flocking to the casinos and inns that have flourished along the white-sand beaches during the last decade.

Twelve casinos have taken root among budget hotels and majestic antebellum houses on Beach Boulevard since legalized gaming came to Harrison County in 1992. The casinos, some built on the sites of former seafood canneries that were a mainstay of the old economy, employ at least 16,200 people--more than half of the 30,000 tourism workers in Gulfport, Biloxi and a handful of other cities.

The beach area has been a resort stop for Southerners since plantation owners came from elsewhere in the state and nearby Louisiana more than a century ago. Now a growing number of visitors is drawn to the state from outside, as is new industry. The rebel flag in a public display presents an image problem, some say.

"It doesn't really represent the community. The community we live in is a community of kind and fair people. That rebel flag has an image across the country of bigotry and racism. And that's not what we're about," said Aldo Morell, president of the Gulf Coast Economic Development Council, which last month was joined by the Gulfport Business Club in asking Harrison County officials to take the flag down. A third group, the Biloxi Businessmen's Club, opted to sit out the debate.

William W. Martin, the Board of Supervisors' only black member in a county that is mostly white, has argued for replacing the battle flag. But the four supervisors who back the flag said they are honoring the wishes of constituents for whom the flag remains a link to forebears who died during the Civil War.

"If we're wrong, I'll make the motion and we'll go down there to the beach the next day and take it down," said Supervisor Bobby Eleuterius, who said the flag fervor tops anything he has seen during his 30 years in politics here. Eleuterius pulled out a nearly 2-inch-thick stack of letters and e-mail printouts; all but a few urged keeping the flag. "I can't go to the grocery store, the Laundromat or church," he said. "People stop me and say, 'Stand tall.' "

Whitfield, a business administration major who would have begun his senior year at Alcorn State University in southwestern Mississippi, vows to remain as long as the flag does. Since he planted himself at the base of the flag July 10 with a cooler of ice and bottled water, Whitfield has prayed considerably, studied the Bible and the works of Gandhi, and lifted weights. He has eaten food donated by well-wishers and shrugged off racist epithets shouted by detractors. He has been the chief topic of on-air conversation at the radio station where his mother is a producer--causing some to suspect a publicity stunt--and been written up in the local paper and elsewhere.

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