Mississippi lawmakers push forward with proposal to remove state flag

JACKSON, Miss. – A stamped flag with a defiant tribute to the Mississippi Confederate past has been raised on the grounds of the State Capitol for more than a century.

It flew when the Civil War was not yet a distant story and when segregation was fiercely enforced by law. Through the fight for civil rights and after the remains of the Confederacy were overthrown elsewhere in times of inflamed racial tension, the flag held.

But on Saturday, when the state flag encrusted with the blue bars and white stars of the Confederate battle flag waved from its pole in front of the Capitol, lawmakers rallied to fight over whether to withdraw it into history.

Both chambers of the Republican-led Legislature voted, with the support of the supermajorities, to push through legislation that would remove the flag and set the framework to replace it.

The debate between lawmakers and across the state has been full of passion, weighted by generations of pride and pain that the flag has long represented. It was, in many ways, a family discussion, which was remade through decades of disagreement.

However, as the flag spread in the broader seizures of racial history that sparked the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, there was a growing sense that this time it was different.

The flag, the only remaining state flag in the country with an open Confederate symbol, has been targeted by opposition that crosses racial, partisan, and cultural divisions.

The Mississippi Baptist Convention has called for it to be removed. So have the state associations of real estate agents, bankers, educators, and manufacturers. A star soccer player from Mississippi State University stated that he would not play while the flag remained, and Kermit Davis, a university basketball coach for the University of Mississippi, joined other coaches under the Capitol roundabout and said that changing it was ” the right thing”. what to do.”

“I understand that many see the current flag as a symbol of Southern heritage and pride,” Mississippi-native country music star Faith Hill said in a Twitter post, “but we have to realize that this flag is a direct symbol of terror by our black brothers and sisters. “

Some have framed the debate in moral terms, arguing that the flag stands in the way of covering the wounds left by the past. However, recent efforts for change have gained momentum largely due to economic considerations, and business and industry leaders say the flag discourages the investment needed to power one of the poorest states.

The financial threat had been underscored by recent announcements by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Southeast Conference that Mississippi would not be able to host championship events until the flag is changed.

“Because of the NCAA and the SEC, we can point to quantifiable harm, if you like, that is occurring, a consequence, a punishment,” said Philip Gunn, a Republican who is the speaker of the House of Representatives, in an interview on Friday. late.

Still, growing calls to change the flag belie the extent of the division that still exists over the banner and how to interpret the legacy it symbolizes. Multiple polls show that despite the increase in the number of people supporting change, almost half the state is resisting the idea.

Many remain attached to the flag because they see it as a lasting recognition of the blood shed by their ancestors who fought for Mississippi and their pride in the state’s history.

“We firmly believe that this political correctness, this movement that we are currently feeling to delegitimize our American institutions and our American history is an incredibly dangerous movement and cannot be appeased,” said Chris McDaniel, a Republican state senator.

State lawmakers extended their session, which was due to end on Friday, paving the way for a vote this weekend.

The proposed legislation on Saturday would abolish the old flag and create a commission that would design a new flag that would be banned from having the Confederate battle emblem and should include “In God we trust.” The commission would be tasked with coming up with a design that would be voted on the November ballot.

A popular alternative has 19 stars surrounding a larger star, an acknowledgment that Mississippi is the 20th state to join the union. That design was known as the Stennis flag until its designer took its name from it because it is the descendant of a longtime senator who supported segregation.

Republican Governor Tate Reeves said Saturday morning that he would sign a bill to change the flag. The announcement marks a marked evolution in the governor’s thinking on the matter, having previously said that any decision to change the flag should be made directly by voters, not by lawmakers.

“The legislature has been stagnant for days because it considers a new state flag,” Reeves said in a statement. “The discussion of the 1894 flag has become as divisive as the flag itself and it is time to end it.”

Mississippi has grappled with the flag for decades, yet that banner continued to hold considerable public support.

During a 2001 referendum, voters overwhelmingly decided to keep the flag as it was. Five years ago, after a white supremacist killed nine faithful African Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, efforts to change the Mississippi flag were revitalized as Confederation monuments were demolished in the south, and the battle flags were lowered. state house grounds in Alabama and South Carolina.

Although efforts failed to officially change the flag, many cities moved on their own to remove the flag, and the state’s eight public universities lowered it on their campuses.

“Mississippi has been on the cusp of change for a long time,” said Mike Espy, a former congressman and secretary of agriculture who ran as a Democrat for a seat in the United States Senate. “It is a remnant of a bleak past, a remnant of the days when humans were allowed to possess humans.”

“Just dig up all those feelings for me,” he added. “I don’t feel angry. I’m disappointed that it’s still there. “

There were indications that the long-held argument that changing the flag undermined a heritage embraced by much of Mississippi was being overshadowed as lawmakers began to recognize the unpleasant history it symbolized for many others.

As a cascade of lawmakers from both parties indicated in recent days that they were in favor of a change, many said that moving away from the old flag had become inevitable.

In 2017, Karl Oliver, a Republican state representative, was roundly criticized after a Facebook post lamented a move by city officials in New Orleans to tear down Confederate monuments, and said its advocates should “lynch”.

“The destruction of these monuments, erected in the loving memory of our family and our South American colleagues,” he said in the post, “is appalling and horrible.” (Then he apologized.)

On Thursday, Oliver said the time had come for a Mississippi flag that “creates unity.”

“When my grandchildren and their children study this time in history, there will be questions,” he said in a statement. “I want them to know it was because of my love for them and Mississippi, and Christ’s love for me and my fellow Mississippians, I based my decision on what I believed was best for everyone.”

Alan Blinder contributed reporting from Atlanta and Jonathan Martin from Washington.

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