How the Confederate flags came down at the University of Mississippi

Twenty years ago, it would have been a difficult proposition to ask the University of Mississippi to take down all the confederate flags on campus. But an angry chancellor, a powerful football coach, and a former alumni highly skilled at public relations all played their part to rid the campus of its turbulent historical reminders.

Harold Burson: I went to college at Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi, and I got a telephone call from the chancellor one day and he said, “Harold, I have got to get the flags—the confederate flags—off the campus.” 

And I said, “Robert, I think you’re smoking pot.” 

And he said, “No I’m not kidding you,” he said, “we’ve got to do it.” 

And I said, “Why have we got to do it?”

And he said, “You know, I’ve been here for one year, I expect to be here for nine more, and I want my legacy to be that I made this a great public university.” 

And he said, “As long as those flags are on the ground, on the campus, that will never happen. And I don't want to be regarded that way." 

So I reluctantly said, “I’ll come down and spend a couple of days with you, and we’ll talk about it and I’ll talk to a variety of people to see how they feel about this.” 

And the feeling that I got on the campus was that “I’m all for getting the flags off the campus, but I am not going to be in the front row cheering that we have to do it.” And that came from all different levels. 

And my last interview was with the coach of the football team, and I said, “Coach, are the flags affecting your football program?” 

He said, “They’re killing us.” 

And I said, “Will you go a little slower and tell me how that works?” And he said, “In the state of Mississippi the best football players are black,” and he said, “with the flags on the campus we are not getting our share of the black players that are going to other schools.” 

Ole Miss was one of the few schools that still kept the flags on the campus. 

And I said to coach, I said, “Coach, you’re the only person who can get the flags off the campus.” 

And he said, “Why do you say that?” 

And I said, “Your redneck supporters, as you describe them, will take your head off if you go in that direction,” I said, “they’d much rather have a winning football team than to have the flags on the campus.” It was a trade-off. I had a lot of leverage. 

And he said, “Well, you may be right, but,” he said, “I’m not going to get involved in politics or this thing right now.”

And I said, “I want you to have a press conference and say, ‘if you want a winning football team you’re going to have to take the flags off the games, off the grounds, off the campus grounds so that we can put together a winning football team.’”

And after two games there were no more flags on the campus, and there haven’t been [any] since 1997. 

So the problem is, in most situations you don’t have that clean a trade off. 

I can’t give you exactly what you want or as much as what you want, but that is, really, I think the key to changing people’s minds about various issues.

Harold Burson — one of the co-founders of global public relations firm Burson-Marsteller — has a fascinating story about how the confederate flags came down once and for all at his alma mater, the University of Mississippi. It involves an angry chancellor, a powerful football coach, and a young Harold Burson himself as the former alumni who understood the power of compromise. They all played their part to rid the campus of it's turbulent historical reminders, and Ole Miss is much better for it. Harold's latest book is The Business of Persuasion: Harold Burson on Public Relations.

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