Flag Flap Ruffles St. Louis

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Someone spilled a drink on Minnesota, so it's out at the cleaners. Nebraska, meanwhile, has been filched. As has Tennessee. Replacements should be on their way soon.

But even when those three state banners are back, the display of flags at City Hall here will not be complete. Mayor Francis Slay has ordered the Mississippi and Georgia flags removed because they display the Confederate emblem.

The move was designed as a conciliatory gesture, a step toward unifying a badly segregated city. Slay, who is white--and who lost most of the city's African American wards to his black opponent in the mayoral primary--took the flags down barely two months into his term, saying he wanted to send the message that he is "mayor of the whole city."

It was not a resounding success.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch supported Slay in an editorial, arguing that "sometimes the politically correct decision also happens to be the right one." Its readers, however, fumed. From across the region, they peppered the paper with indignant letters.

"How far will this go? Will Slay start pulling 'War Between the States' books from the library shelves?" one man wrote.

"Enough of this silliness!" stormed a suburban critic. "Does the mayor's action mean that St. Louis recognizes only 48 states?"

A third letter writer noted simply: "This action of Mayor Slay brings to my mind one word--pander."

Slay, for his part, isn't talking about the decision. His spokesman did not return a week's worth of calls. Yet the mayor is standing by his move: The Mississippi and Georgia flags have not flown in the City Hall rotunda since early June.

Slay apparently plans to restore Georgia to the display when he gets that state's newly redesigned banner, which includes the Rebel cross only as a tiny element in a row of historical flags. Mississippi voters, however, chose to keep the Confederate emblem as a major feature in their flag, and Slay's chief of staff has said the mayor does not want such a "divisive symbol" in City Hall. So it seems to be out for good.

Secessionist Sees Move as 'Slap at Southerners'

Mississippi's governor, Ronnie Musgrove, would not comment on Slay's decision.

But Michael Hill, president of the League of the South, was glad to. "A slap at Southerners in general," he grumbled.

His group is still pushing for the South to secede from the United States. So Hill had to admit to some ambivalence about Slay's move. On the one hand, his members have no desire to call those who shun the Confederate symbol fellow citizens. So he was tempted to say "good riddance" to St. Louis. On the other hand, he itched to defend Mississippi's right to be in a display of national flags.

"As long as we're in this forced union [with the rest of the states]," Hill said, "we will take a stand to protect our symbols."

(If the mayor is scouting for a compromise, he might do well to take a cue from New York Gov. George Pataki. Although he removed the Georgia flag from the New York Capitol in 1997, calling its Confederate emblem a "symbol of hatred for all Americans," Pataki did not cut the state out of Albany altogether. Instead, he ordered a blue banner emblazoned with Georgia's seal to fly in place of the flag he deemed offensive.)

While St. Louis' flag flap has provoked a largely negative public reaction, Slay has won some quiet support from civic leaders eager to bring blacks and whites together to improve the city.

"My own view is that symbolic gestures of this kind work," said Sheila Stix, who heads the St. Louis Black Leadership Roundtable. The flags had never offended her personally. In fact, she had never noticed them. Still, she was pleased that Slay had. "It is meaningful. It helps."

But, as Stix and others pointed out, there's a lot more to be done.

St. Louis' largely African American inner city suffers from the same ills as many other poor urban areas. The schools are woeful, with a graduation rate of just 43%. The health care system is fraying fast, and there is scant money in Slay's current budget to fix it. St. Louis neighborhoods are highly segregated. And the disparities between blacks and whites have not budged in two decades, on measures ranging from income to employment to home ownership to education.

"If you believe in social justice and racial equality, you shouldn't be complacent about these inequities," said Christine Chadwick, the executive director of a nonprofit civic organization called FOCUS St. Louis.

She is heartened by Slay's first months in office.

Slay's most trumpeted accomplishment is brokering a deal for a new baseball stadium for the St. Louis Cardinals, to be partly funded with taxpayer dollars. The stadium will be accompanied by a new development called Ballpark Village that is to include homes, shops and entertainment--and Slay is hoping that the project will revitalize the dragging downtown.

A New Priority on Race Relations

But Chadwick chooses to focus as well on Slay's less-flashy accomplishments, such as his recent decision to investigate allegations of fraud tied to the city's minority contractor program. And, yes, his decision to take down the Confederate symbols.

"People will daily agree or disagree with decisions the mayor makes," she said. "But has this mayor, in a short time, been bold and decisive and risk-taking? Yes. And I think all citizens want to see those leadership qualities. . . . For the mayor to have taken bold stances on issues of race in this community is very significant because it has never been a regional priority."

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