What Should Happen to Mississippi’s State Flag?

One Mississippi Republican has called for the removal of Confederate symbolism from the state flag. Such calls have been made before, but to no avail.

The Mississippi state flag
National Journal
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Brian Resnick
June 23, 2015, 1:11 p.m.

In South Car­o­lina, the de­bate over wheth­er a Con­fed­er­ate battle flag should fly on its Cap­it­ol grounds is serving as a reck­on­ing of its South­ern pride with the more ra­cist ele­ments of its his­tory.

That de­bate is now spill­ing over in­to Mis­sis­sippi, which faces a much lar­ger po­ten­tial iden­tity crisis.

In Mis­sis­sippi—the state with the highest pro­por­tion of Afric­an-Amer­ic­an res­id­ents—Con­fed­er­ate sym­bols are in­cor­por­ated dir­ectly on the state flag, which flies in pub­lic view in front of court­houses, schools, and oth­er civic in­sti­tu­tions. Ac­cord­ing to the Mis­sis­sippi code of laws, “The state flag shall re­ceive all of the re­spect and ce­re­mo­ni­ous etiquette giv­en the Amer­ic­an flag.”

In the wake of the Char­le­ston church shoot­ing, state law­makers in Mis­sis­sippi are re­con­sid­er­ing wheth­er these Con­fed­er­ate sym­bols should be held in such high re­gard.

On Monday night, Philip Gunn, Mis­sis­sippi’s Re­pub­lic­an speak­er of the House, called for a new flag. “As a Chris­ti­an, I be­lieve our state’s flag has be­come a point of of­fense that needs to be re­moved,” Gunn said in a state­ment. “We need to be­gin hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions about chan­ging Mis­sis­sippi’s flag.”

Mis­sis­sippi has had these con­ver­sa­tions be­fore. In 2000, after the state’s Su­preme Court found the flag was in­ad­vert­ently re­pealed by a tech­nic­al­ity in 1906, the gov­ernor ap­poin­ted a 17-mem­ber com­mis­sion to design a new flag to be put to a vote on a bal­lot ref­er­en­dum. (See the pro­posed design be­low. The com­mis­sion chose to re­place the Con­fed­er­ate battle flag with a circle of 20 stars, to rep­res­ent the fact that Mis­sis­sippi was the 20th state ad­mit­ted in­to the uni­on.) 

The proposed replacement for Mississippi's state flag, which went to a ballot measure in 2001. Wikimedia Commons

The res­ults were clear: 64 per­cent chose to keep the design that still flies. “The state is two-thirds white and one-third black, just like the vote split on the flag,” a 2001 Los Angeles Times ac­count of the vote noted.

Mis­sis­sippi Gov. Phil Bry­ant, a Re­pub­lic­an, is in­clined to let the res­ults of that ref­er­en­dum stand. Ac­cord­ing to the Clari­on-Ledger, a Jack­son, Mis­sis­sippi daily, Bry­ant said “he didn’t ex­pect the Le­gis­lature to ‘su­per­sede the will of the people on this is­sue.’”

But oth­ers say times have changed. “That was 14 years ago,” Mis­sis­sippi state Rep. Earle Banks, a Demo­crat, told CNN Tues­day about the voter ref­er­en­dum. “You have a whole new gen­er­a­tion of young people com­ing in, and I be­lieve the mar­gin to keep the flag lowered is much more than it was.”

Mis­sis­sippi’s sen­at­ors dis­tanced them­selves from ques­tions about the state flag Tues­day. “I feel that it’s up to the le­gis­lature,” Sen. Thad Co­chran told re­port­ers. “I sup­port the will of the people of Mis­sis­sippi, as well as the rights of oth­er states to make their own de­term­in­a­tion on this is­sue,” Sen. Ro­ger Wick­er said in a state­ment.

The 2001 ef­fort to re­place the flag was led by the Mis­sis­sippi Eco­nom­ic Coun­cil, an as­so­ci­ation rep­res­ent­ing state busi­nesses. The coun­cil ar­gued the Con­fed­er­ate sym­bol has hurt the state’s eco­nomy, scar­ing away com­pan­ies that might want to move to Mis­sis­sippi.

“We still hold that po­s­i­tion,” said Blake Wilson, the as­so­ci­ation’s pres­id­ent and CEO. “There’s no ques­tion about it: This is an of­fens­ive sym­bol to a large part of our pop­u­la­tion.”

After the ref­er­en­dum loss in 2001, Wilson com­mis­sioned a polling firm to ask 300 voters if they thought the flag would could ever be amended; 48.3 per­cent said, “Yes.” It wasn’t a ma­jor­ity, and it wasn’t even half of those polled. But that 48 per­cent fig­ure rep­res­en­ted a lar­ger por­tion of voters than those who favored change on Elec­tion Day. 

“It’s been 14 years,” Wilson said, when asked if he thinks the res­ult of the ref­er­en­dum would be dif­fer­ent if held today. “A lot has happened in Mis­sis­sippi.”


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