OCEAN SPRINGS, MS (WLOX) - The Mississippi Rising Coalition and three coast residents are suing the City of Ocean Springs over its decision to fly the Mississippi state flag, saying it violates the Fair Housing Act and the Fourteenth Amendment.
The lawsuit specifically calls for the city to remove all public displays of the Mississippi state flag. It also requests that actual or punitive damages be decided at trial.
The plaintiffs named in the lawsuit include Mississippi Rising Coalition President Lea Campbell, Jackson County NAACP President Curley Clark, and Ronald Vincent, an African-American resident of Ocean Springs whose family members have lived in Ocean Springs since 1926.
According to the complaint, "The city's actions harm him [Vincent] in that they (a) label him as an inferior and undesirable member of the community and (b) deter other African Americans from residing in the city and therefore deny him the opportunity to live in a more integrated and diverse community."
The plaintiffs argue that the city's display of the "racially demeaning and hostile state flag" violates the Fair Housing Act by expressing "a preference for white residents and a corresponding discouragement, and suppression, of African-American residents."
The suit also cites violations of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, saying, "By preventing African-American residents of Ocean Springs from living in a more integrated community and by actively discouraging other African-Americans from visiting or residing in Ocean Springs, the city is engaging in discriminatory treatment of plaintiffs and other African-Americans."
The plaintiffs and their lawyers held a news conference Wednesday afternoon at Ocean Springs City Hall to give more details on their suit.
"When Mayor Dobson put the Mississippi state flag up in Ocean Springs on day one of his administration, a welcome mat for hate was placed at our city. Immediately and repeatedly people of color, members of the LGBTQ community and others, including myself, who publicly objected to his action received violent threats and have been harassed," Lea Campbell said. "In the past week, I have personally received a threatening video from the Ku Klux Klan warning me and Mississippi Rising Coalition that -quote- 'The boys are back. And a war is on for our very way of life, and possibly the soil under our feet. It will be stained red with blood before we ever surrender or retreat.'"
Campbell said despite months of protests and attempts to engage in dialogue with city leaders about the flag, the mayor and board of aldermen have dismissed or ignored their concerns.
"In fact, their actions in public meetings have displayed bias against citizens who object to the flag, in favor toward the few who have spoken publicly in support of it," Campbell said.
Jackson County NAACP President Curley Clark said Ocean Springs city leaders initially tried to "kick the can down the road" claiming the flag was a state issue. Clark said the citizens who felt harmed by the flag being put on display in Ocean Springs live in Ocean Springs, so it should be of concern to local leaders.
"To be honest with you, I have more respect for the KKK than I do for Mayor Dobson and the Ocean Springs Board of Aldermen. At least the Klan are not hypocrites. They stand by their convictions," Clark said. "On the other hand, the mayor and the board proclaim not to be racist but their actions speak otherwise. The mayor and board act like old plantation owners who constantly want to prove who's in charge. They have emboldened extremists to act out their true white supremacy feelings."
This action by the Mississippi Rising Coalition comes after a second threatening video appeared on YouTube. In the 10-minute video, a voice says he represents the United Dixie White Knights, a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. The United Dixie White Knights admitted to sending the first video to the organization last week.
Tuesday night, several friends and supporters of the Mississippi Rising Coalition packed Ocean Springs City Hall to talk with aldermen. One even referred to the state flag as being stained, just like a tablecloth she held at the podium that got stained at her house and is now unusable for family gatherings.
Also at the podium was former Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran, who urged the mayor and alderman to reconsider the city's stance on flying the flag.
"I don't consider myself an alt left radical. I'm not gay. I'm not black, but this emblem offends me," said Moran. "Now I know that Mr. Empey had presented the alternative that you have all voted for and the resolution and it seemed like a great idea, and we're gonna wait and see, and we support it going to a referendum. But in the meantime, we're gonna fly the flag. But you see, the parameters have changed, gentlemen. It's getting worse."
Resident Karen Whitley echoed Moran's sentiment, encouraging city leaders to communicate better with everyone.
"This is not helping anything anymore. This is an exercise in futility and frustration for everyone," said Karen Whitley. "Somehow, y'all have to find an avenue to open up conversation among everyone again."
The resolution they referred to was sent to Gov. Phil Bryant in December by the city, asking him to consider a new vote on the state flag.
During the public comments, there were no speakers in favor of flying the state flag.