Rep. Bennie Thompson, the only Democrat and African-American in Mississippi’s six-member congressional delegation, has waited decades for a groundswell of opposition to the Confederate flag.
He just wishes it wasn’t spawned by the killings of nine black members of a Charleston, S.C., church, allegedly by a young white supremacists who posted an internet photos of himself holding the battle flag of the Confederacy.
Through more than 22 years in Congress, Thompson has never displayed the Mississippi state flag with its Confederate markings outside his office in the Rayburn House Office Building. To do so, he says, he’d have to pretend that it was something other than a symbol of slavery and “second-class citizenship for my ancestors.”
An aide said he may be the only member of Congress who refuses to fly his state flag.
Even before Thompson came to Congress in the early 1990s, he attempted unsuccessfully win a state court lawsuit seeking to ban the state’s flag.
On Wednesday after South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called for a Confederate flag flying on the Capitol ground to be mothballed, Thompson saw hope for change. Amid a wave of national sentiment calling for the symbol of the Confederacy to be banned from public display, Mississippi’s two Republican senators, Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, announced they were joining state House Speaker Philip Gunn in calling for the state to change its flag.
“Let’s put it in the museums with other artifacts of history,” Thompson said, sitting in his office. “I would be the last person to say bury it. It needs to be there. But when you put it at the level of a state flag, you’ve given credibility to hate, you’ve given credibility to bigotry, and the eyes of the world look at you and say, ‘I wonder if Mississippi will ever change.’”
Thompson later strode to the House floor and introduced a resolution calling for all flags and symbols containing any Confederate symbolism to be removed from the U.S. Capitol. The resolution says that “it is an uncontroverted fact that symbols of the Confederacy offend and insult members of the general public who use the hallways of Congress each day.”
In a statement, Wicker said that “after reflection and prayer,” he had changed his long-held view as a descendant of several men who fought for the Confederacy that the Civil War era flag was not offensive.
“However, it is clearer and clearer to me that many of my fellow citizens feel differently and that our state flag increasingly portrays a false impression of our state to others.”
On Tuesday, seventh-term Senator Cochran issued a statement saying any decision about Mississippi’s flag should be left to the state legislature, echoing a statement put out by Republican Rep. Steven Palazzo, who added that “outsiders” shouldn’t be involved.
But after Wicker’s announcement, Cochran reconsidered, issuing a statement saying he agrees that “we should look for unity and not divisiveness in the symbols of our state.”
Thompson praised Wicker and Gunn for referencing their Christian upbringings in saying they don’t want to be associated with a symbol of bigotry and hatred.
“If that’s your reason, let’s push it aside,” he said. “Let’s not get into a historical debate as to whether the flag is heritage versus hate and say, ‘Look, that was a part of Mississippi not wanting to be a part of the nation. And now because we’re part of the United States of America, we’ll put that symbol of times past in a museum.”
As a former chairman and current ranking Democrat of the House Homeland Security Committee, Thompson noted that in intelligence briefings about terrorism threats, he and other panel leaders also are briefed about right-wing organizations such as Skin Heads and the KKK that threaten blacks, Hispanics and Jews. “For the most part, they symbol they use is that Confederate battle flag,” he said.
He lamented that it took beatings of civil rights activists to win passage of the Voting Rights Act and now the slayings of six men and three women in South Carolina to prod those who have defended the flag to begin to capitulate.
One South Carolina Republican congressman, Mick Mulvaney, issued a long statement expressing disappointment that the conversation in his home state has been driven by outsiders focused on the flag rather than the slayings. One of the victims was Clementa Pinckney, his former desk mate in the state Senate.
However, Mulvaney said that after speaking with many people over several days, he realized that “the flag does in fact mean different things to different people in our state.”
“And I blame myself for not listening closely enough to people who see the flag differently than I do,” he said, adding it was “a poor reflection on me” that it took such a crime to open his eyes.
Asked about the shifting views of congressional Republicans who have long defended the flags, Thompson formed a wry smile.
“Generally, when sunshine appears, people run for cover,” he said. “And in this instance, sunshine is on the horizon. And nobody wants to be seen when the sun comes up.”