Morgan Freeman & John Grisham Team Up With An All-Star Cast To Share An Important Message For Mississippi

Mississippi may not fly the Confederate flag outside the state capitol, but the state has other ways to show its self-described Southern Pride — most notably, by including the Beauregard battle emblem in its official state flag. For more than 100 years, Mississippi has kept that battle emblem — what we now commonly call the Confederate flag — displayed on its official flag despite decades of debate and controversy. While civil rights activists have yet to be successful in removing the symbol so ingrained in Mississippi's identity, a group of famous Mississippians, including Academy Award-winner Morgan Freeman and novelist John Grisham, is urging Mississippi to remove the Confederate emblem from the state's flag and replace it with a contemporary design that doesn't have ties to the South's deeply racist past.

The group of notable Mississippians, which also includes football players and big-time CEOs, called for statewide equality in a full-page ad published in The Clarion-Ledger over the weekend. The native Mississippians wrote in their open letter to state leaders:

It is simply not fair, or honorable, to ask black Mississippians to attend schools, compete in athletic events, work in the public sector, serve in the National Guard, and go about their normal lives with a state flag that glorifies a war fought to keep their ancestors enslaved. It's time for Mississippi to fly a flag for all its people.
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According to The Clarion-Ledger, former football star Archie Manning (father of professional quarterbacks Eli and Peyton), The Help author Kathryn Stockett, musician Jimmy Buffett, novelist Richard Ford, NBA Hall of Famer Bailey Howell, former Mississippi Gov. William Winter, former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Reuben Anderson, and former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale joined Freeman and Grisham in signing the open letter. There were 60 signers in all.

In an email to TIME, Grisham said he believed Mississippi would remove the Confederate emblem from its state flag "sooner rather than later," adding that change is "painfully show" in the Magnolia State. The best-selling novelist added:

I wouldn't dare speculate as to how the average Mississippian feels [about changing the state flag]. And the average guy doesn't count. It's a political issue — one for the state legislature. I served there once. In 1984, when I was a rookie member of the House, there was a bill introduced to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a state holiday. It didn't have a chance. As time passed, though, more and more states adopted the holiday. Finally, after about five years, we passed it, and I think almost unanimously. As I said, change is slow and hard.
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While Mississippi isn't known for being a vanguard of progress, Grisham is right: The age of the Confederacy in modern-day America is coming to a close. The movement to rid Southern states of any and all signs of the Confederate battle emblem was renewed this year following the shooting massacre of nine black citizens attending Bible study in a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina last June. The shooter, a young white man named Dylann Roof, was a Confederate-flag wearing supporter of the South African apartheid regime who said he entered the historically black church with the intent to "start a race war."

Up until July, South Carolina flew the Confederate flag outside its statehouse. In the aftermath of the tragic shooting massacre, South Carolina legislators voted to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse and place it in a museum — signifying that the beliefs of the Confederacy are now part of American history, not the present. Other Southern states, including Alabama, also removed the Confederate flag from their state capitols this summer.

Although the Confederate flag doesn't fly on its own outside the statehouse in Jackson, Mississippi, is the last Southern holdout, having repeatedly refused to alter its flag over the last several decades. The state came close to creating a new, Beauregard-free flag in 2001, when a statewide referendum, known as the "State Flag Election," was held. When faced with two options — keeping the flag with the Confederate battle symbol or approving a new flag — Mississippi voters overwhelmingly went with the original flag. Just 36 percent of voters said the state should create a new flag without the Confederate symbol that has come to largely represent racism and inequality.

But as Grisham and his fellow Mississippians have noted, these times are a-changin'.