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Ocean Springs, Mississippi, is an idyllic Southern hamlet just outside Biloxi. The former fishing village sits an hour west of Mobile, Alabama, and an hour and a half east of New Orleans, Louisiana. As a coastal town it doesn’t suffer the same sweaty heat as inland, or the blistering historic racism of Jackson. Yet even here, the ghosts of Mississippi’s past rise up — along with the only U.S. state flag to still bear the emblem of the Confederacy.
The city government had chosen not to fly the flag for several years. But last year, newly elected mayor Shea Dobson, a 32-year-old libertarian Republican who upset a three-term incumbent Democrat mayor to win, decided to raise the state flag once again at city hall. The move sparked outrage. “This was a shock for our community, which considers itself inclusive and open-minded,” says Lea Campbell, leader of Mississippi Rising, a nonprofit focused on civil rights and social justice issues.
Amid the outcry, Dobson briefly took the flag down. But that was short-lived, after six of seven city aldermen voted to fly it again in late November 2017. In December, nearly 200 residents filled the quiet suburban streets to protest. Since then, the previously sleepy town has been roiled with wave after wave of protests and raucous town halls, threatening pamphlets and videos from White supremacist groups and competing threats of lawsuits. Even as Dobson has faced a firestorm of criticism, he maintains his only intent was to honor Mississippi as an elected official. “If you respect the state, you love Mississippi, then according to this group [protesters], you are a racist,” Dobson says.
Those tensions aren’t the sole province of a Mississippi town grappling with the past sins of racism. Throughout the nation, communities are being forced to contend with issues of identity and discrimination, in an environment of heightened stakes and emboldened White nationalism. Just this past week, for example, protesters knocked down the Silent Sam statue of a Confederate soldier that has marked the University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus for more than a century. And there’s growing evidence that these issues could drive voters in crucial elections, from the two Senate races here in Mississippi to congressional and statewide fights, experts say.
When BlackPAC, a liberal Super PAC that focuses on Black voters, polled Virginia voters of color in August 2017, they found racial anxiety and a desire to protest racism was fueling their push to the polls, says the organization’s executive director Adrianne Shropshire. A majority of Black, Latin and Asian-American voters said they felt the cultural climate was different, and that minorities were under attack, with 69 percent saying they were extremely likely to vote “in order to stand up to racism and discrimination.” If that feeling is replicated elsewhere, the effects could be felt in the 2018 midterm elections that will decide who controls the U.S. House and Senate, and potentially have ripple effects in the 2020 presidential election as well.
“Their motivation is anger at where we are in this country and a place where we are headed that we thought we would never go back to,” Shropshire says.
That America is revisiting historic fissures is evident in the conversation in nearby New Orleans, where mayor Mitch Landrieu won national plaudits for taking down his city’s Confederate statues, while some locals griped that he was ripping apart the city’s hard-won history just a few years after Hurricane Katrina had swept away much of it.
It’s clear in the debate in Georgia, where Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor, has promised to remove the carving of three Confederate generals from the iconic Stone Mountain, and the Republican nominee, Brian Kemp, has pledged to protect it from “the radical left.” It is at the heart of so-called “Free Speech” rallies in Portland, Oregon and Berkeley, California, where nationalists, anarchists and everyone in between clash to the sound of police flash bangs in the night. It is what defines the solemn memorial of Charlottesville, a college town known for its flagship university designed by Thomas Jefferson, now forever tied to a neo-Nazi-led riot that ended in tragedy when a counterprotester was mowed down by a car.
That national context is painfully evident to Ocean Springs resident Benton Howie, who spent years traveling the world as director for human resources at the German manufacturing company Siemens. “This is not unique to the South. That particular genie is out of the bottle,” Howie says.
That American handwringing is manifesting itself not just in the minds of the people, but in their presence at the polls. Progressive voters, in particular, are showing heightened interest in the midterm elections so far. While Republicans have only flipped seven elections since 2016, Democrats have flipped 46 regular and special elections held by Republicans, according to liberal blog Daily Kos. Voters of color have been especially motivated. According to an analysis of 2017 federal and statewide races by the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest collective of trade unions, Latinos have turned out at regular midterm levels, while African-American turnout was midway between typical midterm and presidential levels (Asian-Americans boasted the highest turnout, nearly reaching presidential levels). “There was no expectation that Black voters would turn out at this level,” says Shropshire, adding that most predicted a dropoff after the 2016 win of President Donald Trump.
Democrats aren’t passive spectators. They’re actively elevating civil rights concerns too in a heated electoral season. In mid-August, six civil rights leaders — including Al Sharpton, Marc Morial of the Urban League and NAACP president Derrick Johnson — penned a letter calling for a fuller examination of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, expressing fear that his nomination could endanger hard-fought rights for African-Americans. In Georgia, Abrams has played up civil rights issues, saying “the fight for basic civil rights — including our right to vote — rages on,” after a report suggesting voter suppression in predominantly Black Randolph County. Democratic bankrollers, from BlackPAC and The Collective to Emily’s List and the Asian-American Pacific Vote, have all organized around protecting voter access and immigrants’ rights.
Some Republicans also see civil rights battles as a winning issue — for their side. In his 2017 race for Virginia governor, Republican Corey Stewart made saving Confederate statues a key part of his campaign. While he lost that race, he became the party’s Senate nominee in 2018 while fanning similar flames. Nationwide, numerous polls show the majority of Americans want such statues to stay up, and an Economist/YouGov survey in August 2017 had 84 percent of Republicans saying the statues represented pride, not prejudice. In Mississippi, Republican Senate candidate Chris McDaniel has posted on social media in support of Confederate figures, including Robert E. Lee. and earlier this month contrasted himself with his Democratic opponent, Mike Espy, who in 1986 became the first African-American to represent Mississippi in Congress since Reconstruction. “You [Espy] tell us you care about Mississippi and care about our history, but you want to change our state flag?” McDaniel said as a crowd of rowdy supporters hooted, hollered and fluttered their own miniature flags in support.
Local communities are being roiled by the debate too. That’s what the conversation turns to at Pleasant’s BBQ on the main street of Ocean Springs, two days before McDaniel’s speech. Campbell, a White woman, talks about organizing four rallies and more than 134 in-person incidents of residents asking the mayor and alderman to take the flag down. She describes the fear and anger she felt after receiving two videos detailing death threats from the United Dixie White Knights, and the KKK pamphlets being passed out in parks, yards and elementary school grounds while supporting the city’s decision to raise the flag. “We have been met with silence, dismissal and outright contempt,” she says.
Sitting next to her, Greg Gipson, a Black resident, talks of his plans to take the youth group of Macedonia Baptist Church to visit the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. Concerns over civil rights are “going to make a huge difference” in elections this year, he says. “If we continue to surgarcoat or ignore it, we’re just part of the problem.”
Watching the Mississippi flag float limply over city hall during a windless dusk, it’s hard to imagine such a fragile object causing so much hurt. But to James Lewis, a retired African-American Army veteran and Ocean Springs native, the flag and the rebel emblem it espouses are hardly small matters. “It’s what it represents,” he says, a time he remembers as a senior at the local high school the first year it integrated in 1968. Lewis remembers the White-Black water fountains and bathrooms, the way Black folks were kicked off public benches and forced to go up the back stairs and sit in the balcony to watch a movie at the theater.
“The community has changed for the better,” he says, but then “all of a sudden, this dagger gets thrown back at you — we’re going to put this flag up, and we’re going to put you back in your place. That’s what it feels like.”
The debate continues the next morning at Brew at the Inn, a coffee shop where owner Craig Banister has gathered six locals to discuss the flag decision. “If you try to remove everything that makes our culture, you remove part of who we all are,” says Carole Marie, a middle-aged artist and painter with purple-dyed hair. “I don’t want a flag that represents hate to represent my heritage,” says Julian Brunt, a 66-year-old freelance food writer who, like most here, has ancestors who died fighting on the Confederate side.
“People have been civil: We don’t use N-words in public, we don’t wave the Confederate flag in people’s faces. But to force this political correctness, you get a pushback. And people start acting in a way they never thought they would act,” argues Glen Miller, a former bridge tender. “Why would you put something up in your front yard that would offend your neighbor?” responds Tony Lawrence, a military vet who vacillates between quoting American war generals and Greek philosophers. “The flag issue is the iceberg above the water you see floating. There are a lot of other deep-seated issues, and people are afraid that once you start with the flag, other things rise.”
While the conversation is relaxed at the coffee shop, during one memorable town hall, Dobson shouted down the county NAACP chair for going a few seconds over his allotted three minutes. Pointing out that the flag has long flown over the firehouse and police station with no outcry, the mayor has called Mississippi Rising “extremist” and “the alt-left.” In June, a friend of Campbell’s posted on her private Facebook page a morphed illustration of Dobson and the six flag-raising aldermen in KKK robes. “They started spreading the image of me as the boogeyman of the alt-right conservative, straight White male who hates minorities and gay people,” Dobson says, but he is pro-gay marriage and against the drug war, which disproportionately locks up minorities. He says he would welcome a statewide vote to change the state flag — the last was in 2002 — but will continue to fly it regardless. Campbell defended the KKK Photoshop, even after the mayor and city aldermen considered filing a defamation lawsuit. “It’s political satire, it’s protected public speech. I don’t apologize for it,” she says.
Yet in the current climate, revisiting the past to stop it from becoming the present is seen as critical even by those worried about America slipping up on its civil rights advances. On a Saturday this month, about three dozen of the Macedonia Baptist Church youth group piled into a bus and headed three hours north to visit the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. A walk through the museum takes visitors past pillars that bear the names of more than 600 victims of lynching, as racist catcalls play out as a reminder of the cruelty of earlier times. Nearly seven decades ago, that famed Mississippi writer William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” Heading to the midterms, the America of 2018 is proving him right.
This story was originally published on August 26, 2018 by OZY.