Can unique political coalition survive?
April 29, 2001
Did someone threaten an economic boycott over the state flag? Are you kidding me?
One of the more laughable reactions by new flag proponents to the slam dunk of the proposed new state flag by Mississippi voters in the April 17 referendum was the suggestion by NAACP national president Kweisi Mfume and NAACP state president Eugene Bryant that the group may utilize an economic boycott to force the issue.
Taking a powder
Let's get this straight. Not since the 1991 gubernatorial general election have black Mississippi voters taken so visible a powder as they did in the
state flag referendum last week. Black voter turnout was low across the board in Mississippi low in every region, low in every black population center.
Despite the fact that a significant and diverse group of white voters offered a high profile coalition in support of changing the state flag, black voter turnout was so meek as to make that coalition's effort a practical waste of time.
Strange bedfellows? You better believe it. White religious leaders representing most every denomination save the Mississippi Baptist Convention.
Pro-business groups like the Mississippi Economic Council. Trial lawyers like Richard Scruggs of Pascagoula. Sports figures. And a group of individual members of the state's traditional white power structure sprinkled in to comprise the strangest political coalition this writer has ever observed.
When trial lawyers and business groups get together on an issue, you'd better believe that there is some fundamental change in this state's attitude about race, about image and about the future is afoot. The same can be said when the Mfume's NAACP is marching in step on at least one issue with the Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Association.
Still, black voter turnout spoke to the fact that most black voters didn't feel strongly enough about the state flag and any symbolisms attached to it to even vote against it in the April 17 referendum. Given that, are we to believe now that as if by magic, the announcement of an NAACP economic boycott is going to suddenly energize those voters.
Boycotts require two things to be effective discipline and time. The dismal black voter turnout on April 17 suggests that such discipline isn't present and that zealots on the extreme left and the extreme right feel much more strongly about the flag issue than do two-job, working families of both races.
The reality of the state flag issue is that armed with the two-to-one referendum mandate, state lawmakers won't touch the issue again for at least a decade and it's not likely to be on the ballot again any time soon.
Chances of an NAACP boycott getting any traction are slim and none at this point. For the foreseeable future, the issue is politically dead.
Dead, that is, unless your name is Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.
Musgrove has two reasons to be afraid after the April 17 vote.
First, for good or ill, proponents of the 1894 traditional state flag blame Musgrove what they consider an attack not only on the "old" state flag, but on all things Confederate. Not since the 1995 gubernatorial general election between Fordice and Democratic challenger Dick Molpus has such a large group of conservative white voters been so highly motivated.
Second, many perceive the flag referendum to be a political referendum on Musgrove's initial 15 months in office. Not even the vast promise of the Nissan deal or the bet-the-come financing of a promised six-year phased teacher pay increase plan has been enough to leave the first-term governor comfortable from a political standpoint.
Couple those problems with the political fences Musgrove tore down during the 2001 regular session of the Legislature and the departure of two of his top aides and Musgrove finds himself on shaky ground not quite two years into his term.
But a broader view suggests some good news for the state. Mississippi was able to deal with the state flag issue without the violence or street clashes that marked the fight in South Carolina or in Georgia.
The fight was with a few exceptions among the Flag Commission hearings reasonably civil in this state.
Two questions linger: 1) Can the coalition supporting the change of the state flag come together on other issues that would expedite racial reconciliation in the future; and, 2) Can the coalition that garnered a whopping 65 percent of the vote to "save" the 1894 flag hold together and become a force in state politics.
The implications for the Mississippi Democratic and Republican political parties and the possibilities of the emergence of alternative single interest groups are obvious.
But in the short term, talk of a boycott as a reaction to the state flag vote seems laughable for whether the NAACP can digest it or not, a significant portion of the blame for the failure of the referendum that sought to change the state flag lies at the feet of black Mississippians who sat the election out and didn't vote.
Sid Salter is publisher/editor of the Scott County Times in Forest. E-mail him at salternews.aol.com.