Confederate imagery: Should the Oregon Capitol take down Mississippi's flag? – OregonLive.com
SALEM — The Confederate flag may soon come down from South Carolina’s statehouse, fallout from fury over a racially motivated shooting last week at a venerable African American church.
California, thanks to a law signed last year, has banned the flag and any related imagery from being sold or displayed on state property, except for museums.
And the U.S. Supreme Court just gave Texas officials permission to keep the red battle flag with a blue cross and white stars off of state-issued license plates.
But in Oregon? That symbol still flies daily in a park just outside the state Capitol in Salem.
Willson Park’s decade-old Walk of the Flags installation includes the state flag of Mississippi — the only one left in the nation that explicitly and prominently features the Confederate flag as part of its design.
Oregon officials insist no one has ever complained about the flag. And legislative leaders, through their spokespeople, declined to comment or return messages seeking comment.
But as the nation struggles with the legacy of a historic icon commonly brandished by hate groups, the outcome of that conversation could resonate in Oregon, too.
One lawmaker contacted by The Oregonian/OregonLive, Rep. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, said he’d like to see Mississippi’s flag taken down. He argues the Confederate flag, no matter its ties to Southern history, is no better than Nazi Germany swastika.
“I can agree that it symbolizes Southern history, but the Southern history it symbolizes is a history of racism, of dehumanizing oppression. That flag never meant anything else,” Frederick said in an email. “I hope that Oregon’s awareness of that will rise to the level of eliminating its display on government property in this state. There is no more reason to display the stars and bars than there is to display a swastika flag.”
Frederick, one of two African American state lawmakers out of 90, pointed to his years growing up in the South.
“I grew up with this flag, and it was used around me for the same reasons it even exists,” he said. “To taunt African Americans, to remind us of our status in the historical South, and to remind us of exactly what it symbolizes to those who carry or display it: Racism and their attachment to racism.”
A spokeswoman for Gov. Kate Brown, in a statement, said Brown commended her counterpart in South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley, for pushing to remove the Confederate flag from the state’s Capitol.
“She hopes that happens,” said Kristen Grainger, Brown’s communications director. “These symbols are important as part of a broader and more meaningful conversation in Oregon about what we as a state can do to address the reality of racism, bigotry and hate that degrades the lives of many Oregonians.”
But back in 2004, when parks officials and the Oregon State Capitol Foundation sought sponsorships and planned the state flag promenade, officials say controversy was the farthest thing from anyone’s mind. The display opened in 2005.
“The issue was never even broached,” said Herb Colomb, the facilities manager at the time for the state’s Legislative Administration office, which oversees maintenance of the installation. “At some point, someone signed up for Mississippi. No one ever raised any concerns about it.”
Sponsorships for each state, which paid for a flag, a flagpole and a bronze plaque bearing each sponsor’s name, cost about $1,000 Colomb says. Flags were offered -come, first-serve, with most people clamoring for the states closest to Oregon.
The Mississippi flag, interestingly enough, was among the last to find a sponsor: Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, and his wife, Peggy.
Boquist, an Army lieutenant colonel who’d just returned from the Iraq war, said he didn’t intend to reply after foundation officials emailed lawmakers asking for money. But then, he said, “they came to me late with hat in hand.”
He said Mississippi was one of “a couple of states left,” and he said he picked it because of its large National Guard population — including units he’d fought with, as he put it, “in the sand box.” He dedicated the flag to “Oregon’s Citizen Soldiers.” Boquist, at the time, also was serving as vice chair of the House’s veterans affairs committee.
Boquist didn’t immediately reply to a follow-up question Monday asking if he thought the Mississippi flag should be taken down because of its Confederate iconography.
It’s unclear who would make that call. Willson Park, which is home to the flag promenade, is part of State Capitol State Park, which is run by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. And though upkeep is funded by the state capitol foundation, the work is managed by the legislature’s administration office. That job consists mostly of replacing flags when they wear out.
“The goal was, I believe, to fly a flag from each state to represent the union,” said Nick Hererra, the Legislative Administration staffer who fields complaints. “We don’t have any control over what other states’ flags look like.”
Any decision on removing Mississippi’s flag, Herrera said, pointing the direction of the House and Senate offices on either side of the Capitol, would fall “above my pay grade.”
Mississippi’s flag has been targeted before. Last year, a group of lawyers in Southern California’s Orange County pushed a resolution asking the county government to remove it from a display similar to Oregon’s.
And on Monday, a Mississippi resident started an online petition demanding that the state change its flag of its own volition — something voters in 2001 refused to do, even as other Southern states began removing the imagery from their own flags.
Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University, said Oregon lawmakers interested in removing Mississippi’s flag may need to suggest an alternative to fly in its place, “rather than just a sign at the bottom that says we think their flag is racist.”
“How do you honor Mississippi as a state but also honor the discomfort?” Moore said, noting the many Confederate flags he’s seen strung from pickup trucks on Interstate 5.
Moore also plugged the two-sided nature of Oregon’s state flag — suggesting another reason it might be preferable to Mississippi’s.
“If you’re offended by the beaver,” he said, “just turn it around and look at the seal.”
— Denis C. Theriault