Raised by a mother who had a sixth-grade education and a father who couldn’t read or write, Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs Jr. said those limitations didn’t stop his parents from instilling in him the values of honesty and hard work.
Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd Thursday [Nov. 19] at Mississippi State University, Flaggs spoke about those values and how they have guided him through a nearly 30-year career in public service. His speech was part of the Lamar Conerly Governance Forum, a lecture series organized by the university’s Department of Political Science and Public Administration.
Flaggs said his parents tried to facilitate his dreams as much as they could, but they expected him to apply the values he was taught in his achievements. As a young man aspiring to be a basketball star who could “dunk like Dr. J,” he began his ill-fated quest for hoops stardom using an old ball and a de-spoked bicycle wheel that his father attached to a pecan tree. After many failed attempts to dunk the ball at the goal’s original height, Flaggs said he lowered to goal to a level where he could reach it. His father caught him, Flaggs said, and he wasn’t happy.
“He told me, ‘Son, whatever you do in life, never lower a goal. Reach a goal,’” Flaggs said.
First elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1988, the Democrat worked to build a reputation for being willing to work effectively across party lines. As chair of the House Corrections Committee, he said he tirelessly sought to improve the juvenile justice system and reduce recidivism.
In 2013, Flaggs was elected mayor of Vicksburg. Since that time, he said he’s helped improve the city’s financial situation and facilitate rapid commercial growth, especially in Vicksburg’s downtown district.
On Thursday in the Swalm Chemical Engineering Building, he encouraged students to “serve others” without expecting to be served and to enter politics as a means of making a difference in people’s lives. Flaggs also addressed how he believes the people suffer when Democrats and Republicans refuse to work together and find common ground.
Students quizzed Flaggs on issues ranging from changing the Mississippi state flag to whether he would support Syrian refugees coming to live in Vicksburg. He said he believes the legislature should change the flag, which now bears the Confederate battle emblem, to “be more inclusive” without calling for another public vote on the matter. Regarding the refugees, he said the federal government needs to take every reasonable precaution to keep Americans safe while also helping the people trying to escape war-torn Syria.
The lecture series is made possible by major support from Conerly, a 1971 MSU accounting/pre-law graduate and longtime partner in the Destin, Florida, law firm of Conerly, Bowman and Dykes LLP. He is both a former national MSU Alumni Association president and continuing College of Business Alumni Fellow.
Christine Rush, an assistant professor of political science and public administration who introduced Flaggs on Thursday, said the mayor is an excellent role model for the students who represented the “ideal of public service” rather than recognition for it.
“What our students are really looking for are mentors and tangible ideas that will help them make a difference either as elected officials or in public policy careers in the future,” Rush said. “They recognize sincerity when they see it.”
Before he closed his speech, Flaggs implored audience members to honor veterans, always exercise their right to vote and to stand for their convictions.
“My problem now is that so many people stand up for something and they don’t even know what it is,” Flaggs said. “But I’d rather go to hell on my own than go to heaven following a crowd.”