djr-2018-01-03-news-state-flagp2

Tupelo officials raised the Mississippi state flag this week over the city’s police department headquarters on Front Street for the first time, ending a year in which a bicentennial banner flew in its place.

TUPELO – After more than a year, a banner commemorating the state’s bicentennial anniversary has been removed from the city of Tupelo’s recently built police department headquarters and Mississippi’s state flag with its controversial symbol of the Confederacy now flies over the new building for the first time.

City officials early this week quietly removed a frayed bicentennial banner from one of the three flag poles at the police department headquarters on Front Street.

The bicentennial banner had flown at the Front Street building in place of the state flag since it opened in December 2016. The banner was flown there by order of the Tupelo City Council, an order made in late 2016 as a way to forestall controversy that might mar the opening of the police building.

That 2016 order mandated that the bicentennial banner come down Dec. 10, 2017, the actual date of the state’s bicentennial anniversary.

Mayor Jason Shelton’s administration, however, waited more than three weeks after this deadline before making the swap.

Shelton’s Chief Operations Officer Don Lewis said he suggested the delay as a way to avoid ill-will during the holiday season.

“Of course, the ordinance is what the ordinance is, and we were supposed to follow it,” Lewis said. “I just recommended to the mayor that we wait until after Christmas and New Year’s. We just wanted the holiday season to be peaceful and calm.”

Lewis noted that he received several inquiries about the matter from council members and informed them of the planned timeline.

“I told them that unless we received any directives otherwise, this was our plan,” Lewis said. The council’s two black members, Ward 4 Councilwoman Nettie Davis and Ward 7 Councilman Willie Jennings, both oppose flying the state flag on any of Tupelo’s municipal properties and expressed disappointment that the administration did not inform them in advance of when exactly the state flag would be installed at the police building.

“I am really kind of disturbed because I didn’t know. Nothing was mentioned to me,” said Davis, who represents the predominately black ward within which the police department is located. “It was done when everyone was kind of hibernating at home for the holidays.”

Lewis said that with the benefit of hindsight, he would have communicated more proactively over the issue.

“I did not send anything out directly to the council when we executed the change,” Lewis said. “If I had to do it over again, I would do that.”

A number of Mississippi cities and towns, including Oxford and Starkville, have furled the state flag from municipal property in protest of its design. Tupelo leaders had previously discussed the issue in 2015 but no formal action was taken.

After controversy began over the shooting of local man Antwun “Ronnie” Shumpert by a Tupelo police officer in June 2016, a local protest movement began to demand law enforcement reforms and the removal of the state flag from municipal property in Tupelo.

Shelton supports the adoption of a new state flag design but deferred to the City Council over the issue of whether Tupelo would fly the current flag.

The issue came to a head as the opening of a new police department headquarters forced the question of what flags would fly on the building’s three flag poles.

On a 5-2 vote, the City Council ultimately voted to mandate that the state flag fly on all municipal properties with more than one flag pole.

A majority of the council refused to exempt the police department from this policy, but on a unanimous vote, the board later agreed to fly the bicentennial banner for a year there in place of the state flag.

The bicentennial banner was designed by the Mississippi Economic Council and features three horizontal stripes of blue, white and red with the state seal emblazoned in the middle.

The Front Street police headquarters is located in a predominately black ward and is adjacent to the historic black neighborhood of Park Hill, one of several centers of black life and commerce during the era of segregation.

Davis and Jennings both said they had hoped this one-year reprieve would give way to a long-term solutionthat would keep the Confederate symbol of the state flag away from the police building.

Davis also noted particular concern that several events that comprise Tupelo’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration will occur within sight of the police building.

Both Davis and Jennings indicated they believe Tupelo is failing to continue its history of positive, forward-thinking efforts to improve race relations.

“I just really get disturbed about it because Tupelo, as progressive as it is and its history of being a leading city, we shouldn’t even be dealing with this,” Davis said. “We’re supposed to be setting the example for others.”

Jennings expressed frank feelings of anger over the lingering presence of a symbol so strongly associated with the armed defense of slavery and often violent resistance to civil rights.

However, like Davis, he urged Tupelo to remember its past as it steers into the future.

“I’m disappointed, but God is bringing me back around real quick to be a part of trying to solve the problems that we have,” Jennings said. “I want us to be a city for all people, not just any one color. We need to find a better way of working together. I would like to see all the citizens in Tupelo come together to move us forward.”

caleb.bedillion@journalinc.com Twitter: @CalebBedillion

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