‘I Looked Like a Villain’: Why a Mississippi Flag Defender Changed His Mind

In 2000, then-19-year-old Patrick Jerome drew a mixed reaction at a public hearing when he declared that those who wanted to change the Mississippi state flag were the real “racists.” Image courtesy americanarchive.org. He later came to see the state flag as a symbol of racism and hatred.

Patrick Jerome was a 19-year-old white Millsaps College freshman with dreams of someday becoming a preacher when he signed up for a speaking slot at a public hearing over Mississippi’s Confederate-themed state flag. It was November 2000, and for the first time, Mississippi was seriously debating whether or not to change its flag, in recognition of the horrors it represented for so many African Americans in the state.

In the name of balance, the private college wanted two students to speak in favor of a new flag and two to speak in favor of retaining the current one. Jerome, who had graduated from an all-white academy in Madison County earlier that year and had no meaningful relationships with any African Americans, volunteered to argue the only viewpoint he knew.

“Those who want to take down this flag of Mississippi are the racists. They’re the ones that think so little of minorities that they love to give them handouts like affirmative action,” Jerome, thin and wearing a black leather jacket, told a packed auditorium days later, His remarks drew boos from black audience members mingled with approving cheers from white ones who were holding state flags or decked out in Confederate attire.

‘A Goddam Supervillain’

Nearly two decades later, on June 11, Jerome was reading this reporter’s recent story on the history of the Mississippi flag debate when he stumbled upon his own words, which the story attributed (almost correctly) to a “20-something white man in glasses” (archival footage of the hearing did not identify the speakers by name nor age).

“I am 95% sure I am (the) ’20-something white man in glasses’ from your article about the 2000 flag forums,” Jerome wrote in a Twitter message to this journalist, who sent him back a screenshot of the speaker in question: a thin white man in a white button-up and a black leather jacket whose thick, dark sideburns and goatee were typical of men’s facial hair fashion at the dawn of the 21st century.

“Oh man, I looked like a goddamn supervillain,” Jerome wrote back.

Though the 19-year-old white man in the footage appeared dead set on his point of view in the November 2000 footage, his views changed within hours of his speech, the now 38-year-old stay-at-home dad told the Mississippi Free Press in a Skype call on June 12. It’s “shocking,” he said, that the flag debate is still ongoing in 2020.

“Obviously, we’re a state that’s 38% black, and we still fly a flag that’s a middle finger to all of those people,” he said. “The people who use it, the people who fly it, they’re not good people. If they say it’s about heritage, it’s a heritage of running an authoritarian police state to keep people enslaved.”

The day after a group of white supremacists went on a deadly rampage in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, students at the University of Southern Mississippi who support the Black Lives Matter movement interrupted a demonstration supporting the state flag. Photo by Ashton Pittman.

The November 2000 hearing gave Jerome a chance to see himself “as the bad guy,” he said—and he considers himself “lucky” for it.

“If you take a look at me from that night, I looked like a villain. I was up there in a black leather jacket. I look like a school shooter,” he said. “And I’m up there and I’m telling people that some shadowy group is up there trying to do something to them, and the only way to stop it is to agree with me. And that’s pretty villainous.”

Before that evening, though, Jerome never would have thought of himself as the bad guy. He just knew his views were the “right” ones, he said. His life experiences to that point had ensured that “what black people were going to think,” one way or the other, had never weighed much on his mind, he said. 

He pointed specifically to Canton Academy, his all-white alma mater—a segregation academy whose founders intended it to serve as a sanctuary for southern whiteness where students like Jerome would never feel a need to consider the views of non-whites, nor to question the “rightness” of their white worldview.

‘An Institution Designed to Churn Out Genteel Racists’

At the end of October 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court made a decision that upended Mississippi’s schools overnight. For years after the nation’s high court told southern states to desegregate their public schools “with all deliberate haste,” Mississippi had dragged its heels, maintaining separate schools for black and white students. 

That fall, though, in Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, the court said 15 years of delays were enough. When students returned in January after Christmas break, they must return to integrated classrooms, the court ruled.

In a Skype interview earlier this month, Patrick Jerome told the Mississippi Free Press that his views changed drastically after he spoke at the November 2000 hearing. Screenshot by Ashton Pittman.

Across the state, groups of white parents, churches, and white supremacist organizations like the Citizens Council began work to hastily cobble together dozens of private schools in the precious two months between the Alexander ruling and the start of the spring semester. Segregationist white residents in Canton chose an abandoned tent factory to shelter their children from integration’s fallout and to serve as Canton Academy’s initial campus.

In January 1970, the Associated Press reported that B.D. Weeks, the head of the foundation that funded the academy, expected that white students in the area would empty out of the public schools and flood the new school.

“I would anticipate that the public school system of Canton will be virtually all black. By Jan. 19, when classes begin, we probably will have about 99% (of white students),” Weeks said in early January of the new year.

The foundation and the community worked to make sure his prediction came true. Weeks pledged to accept white students at the new academy whether they could pay tuition or not. 

Local authorities compelled white parents to send their children to the academy by closing Canton High School, the former white public school that was located centrally between the town’s white and black neighborhoods. Instead, Rogers High School, which was located on a small road in the “black” section of town, would serve as the newly integrated high school. 

Predictably, though, few white students returned when classes resumed that Spring, including just one white senior: Richard Mosby, the eventual 1970 salutatorian who chose to go to Rogers High after his parents offered him a choice.

Canton Academy opened that spring with 1,319 white students; just 36 had remained enrolled in public schools. Similar stories played out all across the state at the same time, as segregation academies sprung up by sheer will of white parents’ resistance to the idea of their children sharing classrooms with black children. Among the Mississippi school kids who left a public school for Christmas 1969 never to return was Cindy Hyde, now U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, whose parents enrolled her at the newly established Lawrence County Academy in 1970. 

By the time Patrick Jerome began school at Canton Academy in 1988, private schools could no longer discriminate against non-white students, thanks to a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. But just as southern public schools remained segregated long after the high court’s first order to desegregate, so did many of the historic segregation academies—even if only because black students chose not to enroll. 

In his Pearl River Flow blog post on June 8, Jerome described Canton Academy as “an institution designed to churn out genteel racists” and “a school where a coach ranting about affirmative action counted as a civics class.” 

For many, a “private academy” might suggest a well-furnished school designed with wealthier families in mind, where students wear uniforms suggesting more than modest means. But Canton Academy, like other segregation academies designed to help white Mississippi parents spare their children the alleged indignity of integrated classrooms, was far from that. Jerome described it as “a broken-down aluminum hut where teachers skipped the chapter on evolution and the history class was mostly by Shelby Foote. The maps still had the USSR on them.”

Foote was a writer from Greenville, Miss., whom historians accused of rewriting the history of the Civil War to push a “Lost Cause” mythos. Foote described Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader, as “one of the most attractive men who ever walked through the pages of history.”

Canton Academy is still mostly white, but does have black and other non-white students enrolled now. The school makes its policy of accepting people regardless of race, religion, and ethnicity clear in its handbook.

‘This Flag … Makes Us Think’

Still, Jerome credits his education at Canton Academy with the attitude that allowed him to think it was a good idea to lecture a partly black Jackson crowd on the virtues of the Mississippi State Flag at the November 2000 public hearing.

“Until I graduated, there had never been a black student,” Jerome told the Mississippi Free Press. “And, you know, part of growing up there, people were racist as hell. And it was easy for somebody like me, who wasn’t just going out there and saying spiteful things and just being what you think of as stereotypically racist—it was easy to tell myself I wasn’t being a racist. And that was exactly the mindset that got me up in front of the crowd that night.”

“Who wants this flag taken down? I’ll tell you who: Those intent on homogenizing American culture and ridding us of the rich cultural experiences of any culture that cannot be bought, sold, and controlled on Wall Street,” Jerome began his speech at the November 13, 2000, hearing, garnering white applause as he repeated ideas he had heard on conservative talk radio and among other white Mississippians. 

“These people see independent culture as a threat to our bought and sold national government. Having this flag makes people think about our past. This flag is dangerous to those in power because it makes us think.”

Moments later, others in the crowd made the 19-year-old speaker think as they booed him for his claim that “the real racists” love to “give minorities handouts like affirmative action.”

“They’ve engineered an economic system that works in collaboration with the so-called justice system to keep those people in poverty either poor or in jail,” Jerome added.

‘If You Get My Flag, I Will Get Your Name’

Though the jeers gave him pause, that was not what changed Jerome’s mind about the flag, he said. Instead, it was watching as one state flag supporter after another spat one incendiary line after another. It was jarring, he said, to watch “furious” white speakers shout offensive remarks on the heels of a black speaker who tried to express how much the flag’s imagery hurt them.

“It changed my mind. I don’t remember many of the words, just how mad, how angry they were,” he said of the flag defenders. “And when I thought what that meant—that they had spite toward these people.”

He recalled one speaker that stuck out—Amanda McNease, a 17-year-old girl with orange hair who had traveled from town to- town to speak at each of the state’s public hearings on the state flag that year. She was a senior at Marion County’s Columbia Academy which, like Canton Academy, sprang up in 1970 to accommodate white parents who opposed integration. In 2000, Columbia Academy was still de facto all-white, though it has since enrolled a number of non-white students.

McNease took the stage after Jerome, wearing a button-up shirt with a large Confederate X across the front. She introduced herself as a grocery-store worker.

“I do work with blacks, and I have several—not just one or two—but several friends who are black,” she began. Those friends, she said, had differing views about what Mississippi should do about its flag.

“One person said, ‘Where would the slaves be today if not for slavery? They’d probably still be in Africa enslaved today if not for slavery,’” the girl offered before plowing through the ensuing chorus of groans to relay another black friend’s alleged thoughts. 

“One person asked me to point out that most of the African American race living in America today got their last name from their masters,” she said. “Are you prepared to give up your last name? I don’t think you are. Because if you get my flag, I will get your name.”

“In conclusion, I say it’s time we all stand together once more and defend the honor we have left,” she continued through another round of jeering. “I also say that you will have to kill me before I will give up the honor and heritage.”

Half a year later, McNease graduated as the valedictorian of Columbia Academy’s Class of 2001. Now a health-care worker, she did not respond to a request to discuss her current views, but recent social-media activity suggests that, unlike Jerome, she still supports the state flag. On June 18, she changed her Facebook profile picture frame from a COVID-19-themed one to one that features the Mississippi state flag.

‘Smug, Smooth Hate’

McNease’s remarks at the November 2000 hearing were far from the only ones that concerned Jerome, though. He said he also recalled hateful remarks from Jim Giles, a Jackson native who led an organization called the Southern Initiative, which he had founded in 1994 “to promote pride in Southern heritage.” He has long been known for driving around with a huge rebel flag on the bed of his pickup truck.

At a hearing in Moorhead, Miss., in late 2000, Giles berated a black lawmaker, Rep. Ed Blackmon, who still represents Canton in the Mississippi Legislature.

“Mr. Blackmon, sitting over there in a thousand-dollar suit, I live in a trailer in the woods. You may have more money than I’ve got, you may have more power than I’ve got, but you don’t have any more self-respect than I’ve got. The Civil Rights Movement is over,” declared Giles, sweat glistening from his bulging forehead as he pointed angrily in the black lawmaker’s direction. “It ended when you stopped trying to help your people up, and you started trying to put me down.”

The same crowd that had applauded Jerome applauded Giles when he made more egregious remarks in Jackson. For the 19-year-old college freshman, the pro-state flag speakers and the sympathetic audience members’ actions that night were revelatory. 

“It was an endless parade of knowing looks and smug, smooth hate that had only hidden from a naive young man because he wasn’t interested in looking too hard,” Jerome told the Mississippi Free Press. “When it was all over, I was stunned. It was perhaps the first time in my life I had been at a loss for words.”

At the end of the hearing, a reporter asked Jerome if he had changed his mind.

“I told him that I wanted a compromise on the flag,” Jerome said. “But I had been completely defeated that evening. I couldn’t support it any longer.”

Jerome said he fully supports the goals of the Black Lives Matter Movement today. Even in his 2000 speech, he pointed out, he alluded to issues of racism in the justice system. If he had the chance to speak to his younger self now, he would urge him to ask more questions about the people who were agreeing with him.

“‘What do you think about that guy who works down at the John Deere dealership that people say is a klansman? he probably agrees with you.’ I would remind myself who was agreeing with me, because that’s what did it for me,” Jerome said. “It was being shown who was agreeing with me that finally did it for me.”

Still, he imagines things could have gone differently—even after that night.

“If somebody like me had gone home to a household of people telling me I did a good job, I think the shock that I felt that night would have gone away,” he said. “And if my friends had been supportive and told me to keep doing what I’m doing, instead of coming up to me and just lambasting me and making me feel like a fool afterwards, things would have been different.”

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