Mayor anticipates Meridian addressing flag issue

Whitney Downard / The Meridian Star

Dennis Allen, a local activist, said the Mississippi state flag, which flies over the Lauderdale County Courthouse, needs to come down. 

Mayor Percy Bland said he has concerns with the Mississippi state flag, the only state flag still featuring a Confederate emblem, and he anticipates its removal from city buildings.

"I have talked about the flag before in regards to it being a divisive symbol in the state of Mississippi," Bland said. "I think the city is going to move forward with the removal."

Bland said he thinks the only state flag being displayed in a city building is in the third floor auditorium of City Hall, where City Council meets and votes.

Bland said he hoped a vote on the flag could be included in the next City Council meeting, which is scheduled 5 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 19.

"I hope to get to the point (where we replace it with) the bicentennial banner," Bland said, when asked about a possible replacement. Others in the state have suggested flying the bicentennial banner, from the Mississippi Economic Council, in place of the state flag. "It's just going to be removed."

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In a statement, Bland also cited economic development, inclusion and equal employment opportunities as reasons for a change.

"I look forward to a day we can raise a flag that unites us all," Bland said in the statement.

On Monday morning, a small group of activists gathered in front of the Lauderdale County courthouse at to protest the county's confederate statue and state flag.

"We feel that flag is unconstitutional and a relic of slavery," Dennis Allen, a local activist, said, adding that the flag represented a time of treason. "We feel it shouldn't be representative of our state."

A statue recognizing confederate soldiers has stood to the left of the courthouse's main entrance since 1912 and the state flag flies to the right of the courthouse. 

Allen said the flag could still be flown from private homes and in museums but that it shouldn't represent Mississippi taxpayers, the state with the highest percentage of African-American citizens, more than 37 percent according to the U.S. Census. 

Allen called for all people to come together, regardless of race – especially on Sept. 11, the anniversary of one of the worst terrorist attacks on American soil.

"It's the same sort of terror," Allen said, comparing the Confederate flag to a flag representing the Islamic State. "That's the day that everyone saw how ugly the world can be and that's the same type of hatred."

Allen said he hoped the "Power to the People Movement Protest and Rally" would encourage others to sign a petition he planned to circulate. 

Sam Bell, a fellow organizer and activist, pointed to the 10 other cities and eight universities in Mississippi that have stopped flying the state flag.

"We're just waiting on Meridian, Mississippi to do the right thing," Bell said. "We want diversity and we want all generations coming together."

Allen and Bell both said they felt the flag held Mississippi, especially African Americans, back.

"When you fly the flag, you disrespect African American people as a whole," Bell said. "People look at this state and think there's a slave mentality."

Allen said they'd approached the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors, the Meridian City Council and Mayor Percy Bland and believed they had support.

The size of the crowd at the courthouse, five people, didn't phase Allen.

"As long as I've got the Almighty God on my side that's all the support I need," Allen said. "It's time to put God back in the community."

Allen pointed to the state flag, hanging just above his head.

"And that? That's hate right there."

Bland is not the only politician who has expressed reservations about the state's flag.

Greg Snowden, whose House District 83 covers part of Lauderdale County, said he saw the Confederate statue and state flag as two separate issues. 

"The flag, supposedly, represents the entire state," said Snowden, who serves as the Pro Tem. "I think it's a legitimate conversation if the flag should be changed."

However, Snowden said he felt differently about the monument, which depicts a nameless foot soldier, and not a Confederate leader. 

"That's a common soldier who went to war because his community and state asked him to," Snowden said. "That person was asked to serve and he served."

Snowden said that removing a monument such as the Lauderdale County courthouse's verged into rewriting history.

"I feel the monuments are part of history and ought to remain where they are," Snowden said.

Meridian's Ward 2 representative, Tyrone Johnson, said he wanted to hear from community members before the council decides.

"If it's causing a lot of division in our community, then I think it should be taken down," Johnson said. "I want to hear more detail from both sides about it."

Kim Houston, Meridian's Ward 4 representative, said she didn't think it would be presented at the next council meeting but the agenda setting meeting would be Tuesday.

"I've only had one call regarding the flag and that's the same person who held the rally downtown today," Houston said. "If it's affective to people then we need to look at it as far as taking it down... If it's on the agenda I'll probably vote in favor of taking it down because we don't want to offend people.

"What it means to some people it doesn't mean to others and we need to be mindful of that."

Still, Houston said she hesitated to bring the issue up.

"I'm somewhat afraid to bring up a controversy where there isn't any controversy right now," Houston said. "In Charlottesville, (Virginia) that's the banner that's being raised and that's a problem. But when you're here in Meridian – and I'm not saying we're perfect – but we're not dealing with the same sort of issues that other places are dealing with."

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