Appeals Court To Hear Case Involving Mississippi's Controversial Flag

Mar 7, 2017
Originally published on March 7, 2017 8:22 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Mississippi's controversial state flag, with its Confederate emblem, gets a hearing in a federal appeals court today. An African-American resident claims the flag amounts to state-sanctioned racial discrimination. NPR's Debbie Elliott has been following this case, and she joins us now. Good morning, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Can you just start by describing the Mississippi state flag and explain the suit?

ELLIOTT: So in the upper left-hand corner of the flag is a red square with a blue X on top that's dotted with 13 white stars. And that's the Confederate battle flag. So Mississippi lawyer Carlos Moore, who is black, says that symbol discriminates against African-Americans and subjects them to being second-class citizens. He sued. He says he fears potential racial violence and that he suffers from health effects, things like high blood pressure and anxiety.

MARTIN: But his lawsuit was rejected by a Mississippi federal judge, right?

ELLIOTT: Right. So U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves threw out the case last year. He ruled that Moore failed to show that the flag had caused him legal injury. But it's interesting to note the words that Judge Reeves used. He's also African-American, this federal judge. And he wrote that there's no constitutional right to be free from anxiety at what he describes as a state display of historical racism. He called the Confederate emblem a repulsive symbol of the past, quote, "born of the South's intention to maintain slavery."

MARTIN: What's the issue before the appeals court then?

ELLIOTT: Here, again, it's the question of whether or not Moore can show he's harmed by the flag. It's legally called whether he's got standing to sue. I spoke with Moore's lawyer Mike Scott. And he says it is indeed a harmful symbol because it endorses one race over another. He says his client should be able to sue to take it down.

MIKE SCOTT: The government, through this flag, essentially endorses white supremacy. An African-American who is confronted with that flag everywhere is reasonably offended by it. And that ought to be enough for standing.

ELLIOTT: Now, the state, meantime, is going to argue that no matter how objectionable the state flag may be to Moore and other African-Americans or even other white residents, he can't show that he's suffered a concrete injury here. And they're going to be using some of the same words that Judge Reeves used. The state is going to argue that there is not any constitutional right to be free from anxiety by the display of the state flag.

MARTIN: So Mississippians have been arguing, debating about their flag for a long time. What is the public discourse like on this now?

ELLIOTT: Well, I'm going to take us back to last year. And let's listen here to this scene at a protest at the state capitol. It was very heated.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Bring it down. Bring it down. Bring it down...

ELLIOTT: So there's been a push to get the legislature to change the flag. But thus far, that has not moved anywhere. Some local governments and colleges have stopped flying the flag, including the University of Mississippi, itself a campus that struggles with symbols of the Old South. The last time this was put to a statewide vote was 2001. And by a nearly 2-1 margin, voters decided to keep the flag. Republican Governor Phil Bryant says that's where the decision should remain - with voters and not the courts.

MARTIN: NPR's Debbie Elliott. Thanks, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.