Lee Eric Smith {right) draws upon his relationship with Frank Hurdle and emerges with this take against the backdrop of the changing of the Mississippi flag. Book cover: "Slavery in Mississippi" by Charles S. Sydnor.

Frank Hurdle and I have a number of things in common. We are both born and raised in Holly Springs, sons of respected families in the town. Though he’s a few years older than me, we both went to Ole Miss. We both were in journalism there, where we both eventually ascended to become the Editor of The Daily Mississippian, the campus newspaper.

There are a few key differences, though. Frank is a staunch conservative, has been for as long as I’ve known him. He’s also “White.” I am . . . neither of those things.

Frank’s reputation for conservatism preceded him, actually. It was 1987, when I’d earned a Gannett Scholarship for Minority Journalism at Ole Miss. The scholarship would require me to write at least two articles a week, somewhere. Given that journalism was taught in the top two floors of Farley Hall and there was a daily newspaper in the basement, it was a literal no-brainer where I’d get my reps in.

Frank, a law student at the time, had been elected DM Editor, and was kicking off his term in my freshman year. When hometown people found out I was going to Ole Miss in journalism, I was warned: “Watch out for Frank Hurdle,” they’d say. “He’s racist.”

So, yeah, I was wary when I went down to the basement, looking for my first assignment to fulfill my scholarship requirement. I met Frank with a handshake and a smile. I wasn’t fooled however – I know racists can smile through their contempt for you. And that was when he dropped his first bomb on me.

“Why don’t you cover the Associated Student Body elections?” he said.

I gulped. An election story? My first time out?

“Are you sure?” I answered. “That sounds like a pretty big story. You sure you don’t want to give it to someone a little more . . . experienced?”

“You can handle it,” Frank chuckled.

And that’s how I got my first front-page story in The Daily Mississippian. Over my college career, I’d eventually move through the editorial ranks, until my junior year, when my colleagues and I staged a minor revolt, favoring a selection process for DM Editor, over an election process. That process made me the DM’s first selected editor – and its first of African American descent.

I’m not saying Frank is responsible for that achievement – talent, hard work and countless late nights putting out the paper had a lot to do with it. But showing that kind of confidence in me certainly opened my mind to becoming Editor. And Frank was the one who gave me the ball.

Over the years, I’ve always felt a sense of shared mutual respect with Frank, despite our differing viewpoints. As recently as December 2018, when acclaimed author and journalist Jesse J. Holland (the second African American DM Editor) was honored at the Crystal Ball in DeSoto County, Frank had an extra ticket and invited me.

Frank and I are not close friends – he’s not calling me if he has a flat tire somewhere – but we can talk, disagree on everything and still share a laugh. So, when the Mississippi State Legislature voted last weekend to retire the “stars-and-bars” version of the state flag, I wanted to see what Frank had to say.

I’ve long felt that conversations about race in America should be nuanced, because the topic itself is nuanced. It certainly held true in my 40-minute talk with Frank on Monday night.

“What happened to George Floyd was horrific,” Frank said. “I mean, how do you keep a knee on someone’s neck for eight minutes?”

Then, pretty much on cue, he echoed a popular Fox News talking point about Floyd.

“But he was not a hero,” he said. “I felt like the young woman, when they burst into her house on the no-knock warrant . . .”

“Breonna Taylor . . .” I said.

“Right. If you want to hold up a case for police overreach, it should be her,” he added. “But that (Floyd) video . . . it was like Vietnam. People knew war was hell, but seeing the actual footage of it on television . . . clearly, it changed things.”

Later and without prompting, he conceded that the Civil War was rooted in the preservation of slavery, which pivoted our talk to the flag he considers part of his Southern heritage.

“I just don’t see it as a pro-slavery flag,” he said. “I know other people do, but I don’t.”

So I asked if he could trace his lineage to soldiers who fought in the Civil War. I asked if his ancestors owned slaves. He mentioned four of his forefathers who fought in the Civil War from Mississippi. Another generation back, he knows of a North Carolina ancestor who owned slaves.

“You’ll be hard-pressed to find a white southerner who, four or five generations back, didn’t own slaves,” he said. “We can’t really comprehend slavery today. We just can’t. That people would do that . . .”

“It works if you don’t think of the slaves as human,” I replied. “I don’t think white folk back then could have sold themselves on it, if they saw these other beings as human. People with guns and money bought and bullied the rest of society into turning a blind eye to black folks’ fundamental humanity.

“Slavery had been going for generations before the founding of the country,” I added. “You could say that America itself was just as born into slavery as my ancestors were.”

By the end of our conversation, Frank seemed more or less resigned to the retiring of the state flag. “I wish it wasn’t rushed through. I wish it had been put to a vote – and I think (the state flag) likely would have been voted out anyway.

“If I had my way, it wouldn’t have changed,” he said. “But I’ve decided it doesn’t matter about the new flag. My heart’s not in it. I’m not celebrating, but it’s not the end of my world. I’m not weeping in my beer.”

To which, I joked: “Wait, there’s beer? I’ll be right over! And we can drink and talk with masks on from six feet apart!”

“Man, if you were in Holly Springs, I’d tell you to come over and we’d split one!” he said. I could tell he meant it.

So what’s the point? Why are you reading about this conversation between two Mississippi boys, one “black,” one “white?” Because in this polarizing time in our nation, I think it’s important to see that despite our differences, agreeing to disagree is indeed an option.

Frank and I may never agree on the fate of the Mississippi state flag, but we can still share a laugh over a cold beer.

In my book, that’s progress.