Where the Confederate flag belongs

The tragedy in South Carolina has catapulted our nation into another discussion of the lingering displays of the Confederate flag in public places. As a lifelong Mississippian and former chancellor of Ole Miss, I have been personally involved in this often debated, highly emotional issue.

In my tenure as chancellor at our university, we were able to put the flag behind us, but not without a long, contentious, and divisive public furor. During those painful years, we learned many lessons about Mississippi … and America. I received several death threats for "destroying our heritage." The messages originated from places as far as Montana, Maine and Idaho.

The Confederate flag on the Capitol grounds in Columbia, South Carolina.
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The Confederate flag on the Capitol grounds in Columbia, South Carolina.

The Confederate flag is a part of our history as a nation. At the end of the War Between the States, the flag should have been placed in libraries and archives.

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But many individuals are emotionally tied to their history. They view the flag as a deeply personal matter—an important part of their family and regional history. And, as individuals, our Bill of Rights guarantees their freedom of expression. But we should not allow personal feelings about a historical symbol to stimulate discord and unhappiness in our society.

To many people, white and black, the Confederate flag is a symbol of hate. It is a painful reminder of lynchings, church burnings, and the double standard people of color endured for more than a century.

Thankfully — albeit sometimes violently — as a nation we have moved away from that double standard. Of course, there are pockets of those outdated ideas and feelings, but they are not limited to any particular region and they are not a reflection of how the vast majority of Americans feel.

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The reaction of the victims' families in Charleston, SC, is a model for the rest of us. Love and forgiveness are the best responses to outrageous deeds and attitudes. Respect for the dignity of every individual is a value we embrace at Ole Miss. I urge people across the nation to do the same. America must be united to be great. We must find common ground and compromise when necessary for the greater good. When we have the opportunity to remove hurtful, divisive symbols or traditions from our public institutions, we must have the courage to act, to withstand the cries of opposition, and to move forward — with love dominating our thoughts, actions, and words.

Placing the flag in its appropriate place in history — a museum — is necessary. And it is absolutely the right thing to do.

Commentary by Robert Khayat, who served as the 15th chancellor of the University of Mississippi from 1995 until 2009. He is a former College Football All-Star, All-Pro Kicker for the Washington Redskins, law professor and president of the NCAA Foundation. His memoir, "The Education of a Lifetime," was published in 2013. Follow him on Twitter @Robert_Khayat.

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