Race car driver Tommy Joe Martins, who answers to his double first name, is as down-home Mississippi as they come. He grew up in the tiny Panola County town of Como. He went to high school at Magnolia Heights Academy in nearby Senatobia where he played football and basketball and where he says, chuckling, “I wasn’t any good at either one of them.”
He graduated from Ole Miss where he studied broadcast journalism. He says he is proud to be from Mississippi and loves his home state. And that’s why when he realized his dream of becoming a NASCAR race driver, he put the state flag on his car.
“I want people to know where I am from,” Martins says. “I am proud to represent Mississippi.”
He says other drivers later told him their first impression of him was that he was a big racist redneck because he was running the Confederate flag on his car.
“They didn’t see it as the state flag,” Martins said. “All they saw was the Confederate flag.”
Then, two years ago, when preparing for a race, he noticed someone had peeled the state flag decal off his car.
Martins asked what had had happened and was told a race official had done it. When he asked why, he was told that NASCAR was trying to distance itself from the Confederate battle emblem, which is part of the Mississippi state flag.
“But that’s my state flag,” Martins said.
“Then why does it have a Confederate flag in it?” the official responded.
And, says Martins, he didn’t have a good answer for that.
That’s likely because there is no good answer – not when 38 percent of Mississippians are African American and the Confederate flag was flown in a war fought to preserve slavery. Lucius Q.C. Lamar wrote in Mississippi’s declaration of secession: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest in the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun…”
“It was my aha moment,” Martins says of the brief confrontation with a NASCAR official over his flag decal. “I was embarrassed, to tell you the truth. It hit me that people didn’t see that flag and say, ‘Well, he’s from Mississippi.’ What they saw was the Confederate flag and all it has come to represent. I thought that whatever people assume that means about me, it definitely does not mean that. It’s time for me to distance myself away from that. I don’t want that perception of myself out there. It’s time for us to fly a flag that better represents all of us.”
Martins has shared his thoughts on the Mississippi flag on social media, including this recorded message. On his Chevrolet Camaro race car, No. 44, he has added what has become known as the Stennis flag, a proposed Mississippi flag design done by Jackson artist Laurin Stennis.
Martins says he realizes many supporters of the current state flag, adopted in 1894, believe the flag represents the state’s Southern heritage. “I certainly don’t want to vilify the people who fly the flag because they believe it represents their heritage,” he says. “On the other hand, the negatives of the flag are just so overwhelmingly obvious to anyone who pays attention.”
Yes, they are. The Confederate battle flag has been adopted by various hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan. One by one, other Southern states have distanced themselves from the Confederate flag. Mississippi’s eight state-supported universities – and many Mississippi cities and counties – refuse to fly it. And last week, NASCAR announced it will prohibit the display of Confederate flags from all NASCAR events and properties. That policy will get its first test when NASCAR goes to Talladega, Alabama, for races this weekend. Martins will race in the Xfinity Series Unhinged 300 on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. Attendance will be limited to 5,000 fans for the Geico 500 race on Sunday.
Traditionally, Confederate flags have proliferated in the stands and in the infield at Talladega – big ones and little ones and also flags on T-shirts and caps.
“Honestly, I am not sure how the new policy is going to work,” Martins said. “My understanding is that they will treat it like a trespassing charge. First, they’ll ask you to take it down. And then, if you don’t, they will ask you to leave.”
Martins will be coming off a Top 20 finish last week at Homestead, Florida, in his tenth start of the season at Talladega. This has been a season of bad luck, including engine failure, electrical problems, cut tires, brake failure and one horrific crash (unavoidable for Martins) at Charlotte where Martins had seemed assured of a Top 10 finish. Most of those problems have been beyond Martins’ control. He has spent the majority of his career racing in relatively underfunded cars against much richer teams. A general rule of thumb in NASCAR: It takes a whole lot of money to make any money.
But Martins still dreams the dream of winning and someday owning his own racing team. Meanwhile, he will try to control the things he can control, including what goes on his car. That includes the Mississippi flag he supports.