In a city where many people once looked at as a quiet and friendly multicultural town with an exotic small business and arts community and considered a jewel of South Mississippi, it has found itself inadvertently branded as one of the last bastions of racial intolerance and white supremacy, all in a course of just over nine months.
It’s an example of what can happen when racial scars are suddenly torn off perhaps irresponsibly and bodes the question: which side bears more of the truth?
April 4, while much of the nation observed the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the advocacy group Mississippi Rising Coalition filed a District Court lawsuit against the City of Oceans Springs for its open brandishing of the Mississippi State Flag, which includes the emblem of the controversial Confederate Rebel Flag. It has become the latest of several recent developments of citizens attempting to remove a consensus symbol of hate and oppression from the region’s and state’s deep racial history and culture, developments which have included threats by a local Ku Klux Klan group and an NAACP president being shouted down by the Mayor.
“When Mayor Dobson put the Mississippi State flag up in Ocean Springs on Day One of his administration, a welcome mat for hate was placed on our city,” said Lea Campbell, founder and President of Mississippi Rising Coalition and the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. “By displaying the State Flag at City Hall and other municipal properties, Ocean Springs officials have demonstrated to people of color and others who have objected to the symbols of white supremacy that we are not welcome or safe in this city. We feel unsafe, unwelcome and like second-class citizens.”
Curley Clark, president of the Moss Point/Jackson County NAACP and another one of the plaintiffs, stated: “We feel like everyone should have the same rights in Ocean Springs, not just the majority.” In a March Board of Alderman meeting, Ocean Springs Mayor Shea Dobson pounded his gavel several times and shouted to Clark that his time was up 10 seconds after Clark went over his 3-minute limit on his citizen comment remarks. Other previous speakers had been allowed to speak longer over the limit during their comments.
The lawsuit filed by the Mississippi Rising Coalition comes after – not one but two – threatening YouTube videos distributed by The United Dixie White Knights of the KKK. The first video directly warned Campbell and MRC that “The boys are back.” A voice in the video identified as “Reverend Smith” further stated: “And the war is on for our very way of life and possibly the soil under our feet. It will be stained red with blood before we ever surrender or retreat.”
The State Flag was not an issue for at least the past 10 years in Ocean Springs, pulled and kept down by the previous administration and former Mayor Connie Moran. But in July 2017, mostly due to an apathetic voting turnout of only 13 percent, Dobson upset Moran for the Mayor’s seat and on the very next day, re-erected the flag to be hung at official city buildings. A rash of protests and highly spirited town hall meetings caused Dobson to temporarily bring the flag down three months later. But last November, the all-white male Board of Aldermen voted 6-1 to put it back up.
“I still feel like the purpose of flying the flag is sole to respect the state and to show that we are a part of the state and my views on that haven’t changed,” said Mayor Dobson, who also accused the media of not reporting both sides of the story. “As a political activist, I have spent the past ten years walking hundreds of miles for causes I believe in. Why can’t they? Their ultimate goal is to change the flag and the city of Ocean Springs has taken action in making a new vote possible. This alt-left radical group seems more interested in identity politics and playing the race card than they are with actually working to get a new vote.”
Attorneys Carlos Moore and Michael Scott filed the lawsuit as a violation to both The Fair Housing Act and the 14th Amendment, arguing that, “By preventing African-American residents of Ocean Springs from living in a more integrated community and by actively discouraging other African-Americans from visiting or residing in Ocean Springs, the city is engaging in discriminatory treatment of plaintiffs and other African-Americans.”
“It’s a way of directing people to go somewhere else, go live somewhere else,” said Scott. “We think that is a pretty clear violation of the Fair Housing Act and we’ll prosecute the case to the extent necessary to get the result we’re entitled to.
“This is never the preferred way to dissolve things, but I know here that our clients and plaintiffs, in this case, have given the City of Ocean Springs every opportunity to do the right thing short of litigation.
The NAACP’s national office released an Emergency Resolution in February, calling for the removal of the Confederate Flag emblem from the Mississippi Official State Flag. It partly states:
“…the State of Mississippi now remains the sole state in our country to embrace a symbol of war, hate and a failed attempt to perpetuate its right to slavery,into its flag while regarding it as ‘heritage’ despite inflicting degradation upon its citizen of slaves.”
The resolution further says: “The NAACP urge Mississippi leaders to follow the State of South Carolina as it did in secession – this time however in an effort to heal the wounds of centuries-old conflict and insistence on clinging to a heritage of hate…”
Moore said: We hope the court takes this case seriously. What is it going to take for Mississippi to get our act together? We’re here fighting while everyone is alive and breathing.”
In the reflection of Dr. King’s assassination anniversary, Moore concluded:
“I imagine that he is turning over in his grave to see that 50 years later, we’re still fighting the same fights that he fought.”