RIDGELAND — Tate Reeves is the 15th governor of Mississippi in my lifetime. I was born during the second year of the second single term of Gov. Hugh White. During the nearly 67 years since my birth, Mississippi has been served in its highest office by progressives, populists, conservatives, demagogues and moderates.  Each of them proclaimed to be a practicing Christian.

The same may be said of the hundreds who have served in the Mississippi Legislature during that time. I can reasonably question whether the ideologies or religious affiliations of any of those alluded to above really matters. Mississippi was on bottom when I was born and seems destined to remain there. Our perpetual standing has never been due to a lack of talent or competence in Mississippi state government. The problem stems from the reluctance of elected state officials to exercise leadership on tough issues.

Once again, the issue of our state flag raises its head nationally. Serious outcomes are in the offing should the state retain what is essentially the Confederate battle flag masquerading as an inoffensive banner. Athletic teams in some of Mississippi’s institutions of higher learning stand to be penalized in the event their records in certain sports qualify them to host regional playoffs. Conference USA and the Southeastern Conference have said that championship games will not be played in Mississippi as long as the current state flag flies. The NCAA is backing them up.

Consider the success that Mississippi State and Ole Miss have had in baseball in recent years. It is reasonable to assume that one or both would have been chosen to host regionals and maybe super regionals had not this season been cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ole Miss in particular was playing phenomenal baseball before the season’s abrupt end. Consider also the economic benefits that Oxford and Starkville reap when Ole Miss and State host postseason events.

The governor and Legislature must take up this contentious issue themselves and decide through debate and the votes in  Senate and House chambers whether to retain the current flag or choose another. They cannot continue to abdicate authority in this matter. A referendum held 20 years ago is not binding in perpetuity, and it cannot become an excuse for the avoidance of a tough decision.

A legislator said on television last week that she is opposed to outside forces telling Mississippians what they must do. Does she not realize that slavery might still exist in Mississippi if not for an outside force, namely the Union Army?  If not for the United States Congress, African Americans would likely still be unable to vote in Mississippi.

Yes, it sounds high-minded to say, “Let the people decide.” It’s more truly high-minded when you take a stand that may be unpopular and one for which you may be held accountable.  

The stakes are too high for this issue to be settled in a popular referendum. We need true leadership.  A friend of mine is fond of saying, “Mississippi didn’t get to be last by being smart.” We’re last not because we’re not smart. It’s because our leaders do not lead.

nVincent J. Venturini is the retired associate provost at Mississippi Valley State University. He lives in Ridgeland.

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