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A bill in the state legislature would establish a flag commission to draw up alternatives.
Across the South, communities continue to be locked in debates about removing Confederate symbols from public spaces, questioning if it is appropriate to give prominence to statues honoring rebel soldiers or fly flags of the Confederacy.
But the discussion in Mississippi in recent years has centered on the state’s own flag, which since 1894 has featured the Confederate battle emblem in the upper left corner.
Now, a bill in the state House seeks to shift the conversation by creating a flag commission made up of legislators, teachers, college professors, artists, historians and high school students. Their mission? Design two new flags for lawmakers to vote on in 2021.
The only condition is that the design can’t contain the Confederate “Southern Cross” that is currently part of the Mississippi flag.
This is a project that others have already embraced. One alternative flag was designed by artist Laurin Stennis, the granddaughter of the late U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis, who was an avowed segregationist during his long career in office. The “Stennis flag,” which features a central blue star ringed by 19 smaller stars, was proposed as an alternative in the 2019 legislative session, although that measure ultimately failed.
The Mississippi legislature last year did create a specialty license plate that embraced the proposed new flag. This year, a new bill also has been filed to simply change the state flag to the Stennis design.
The flag debate hasn’t just played out in Mississippi. In Georgia, legislators and voters for years pushed to remove the battle emblem added to the state flag in 1956 just as the Supreme Court began ordering schools to desegregate, as the Atlanta Journal Constitution explained. They ended up with a “compromise” flag in 2001 before voters selected a brand-new design in 2004, although critics have noted the new flag is based on the Confederacy’s original flag, the “Stars and Bars.” Other states continue to have less obvious references to the Confederacy in their flags and sometimes debate removing those symbols.
The current measure in Mississippi was brought by state Rep. Bryant Clark, a Democrat who also serves as the president of his local NAACP chapter.
Clark, who has filed legislation to change the state flag for 17 years, told the Clarion Ledger newspaper he did not expect the issue to get much traction at the legislature this year.
But Corey Wiggins, the executive director of the Mississippi NAACP, said he thinks the issue remains important. “We’ve long had the stance that the state flag should be changed,” he said. “It represents a point in time in our history where African Americans lived in constant fear and oppression. It’s not a symbol that should represent our state.”
The proposal also comes at a time when popular support for a redesign seems to be growing. A recent petition to change the flag has amassed over 67,000 signatures.
A previous petition in 2015 garnered about 7,000 signatures. That petition makes mention of the sentencing of a gang of ten young white men convicted of perpetrating a series of racist attacks on African Americans in Jackson in 2011. “They pelted people with bottles. They ran over a man with their truck. This was not 1965. This just happened,” the petition reads. “To insist on keeping the Confederate battle symbol on Mississippi’s flag at this point would be a statement of state-sanctioned hatred, and it would be unforgivable.”
That push to change the flag followed the June 2015 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, when a white supremacist killed a pastor and eight black parishioners. Then-Gov. Nikki Haley subsequently ordered the battle flag to be removed from that state’s capitol grounds.
Since then, all eight public universities in Mississippi and several cities have stopped flying the Mississippi state flag, many citing the Charleston mass shooting as their reason. Two proposals before the Mississippi legislature this year would require universities to fly the state flag, including one that would tie funding to the mandate. (Similar bills haven’t taken off in the legislature in recent years).
Other instances of white supremacist violence have more recently re-sparked the flag debate. In 2017, following the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Mississippi state legislature’s Black Caucus asked former Gov. Phil Bryant to organize a special session so that lawmakers could debate removing the Confederate symbol from the flag. He declined that suggestion.
At that time, Republican Speaker of the House Philip Gunn said that he supported changing the flag. “Though it is not to say that everyone who flies Mississippi’s flag has feelings of hatred in their hearts, the confederate battle emblem is painful for many people,” he wrote in a post on Facebook. “It is obvious that the confederate battle emblem continues to be associated with attitudes of bigotry, hatred and racial superiority. I believe this association will only continue to increase, therefore providing more reason to disassociate with this flag. I want to see the flag changed.”
Other Republicans, including 2019 candidate for Mississippi attorney general Andy Taggart, have also called for a redesign. Taggart told the Clarion Ledger that the flag was preventing the state from attracting and retaining young residents. "Unlike monuments, unlike street names, unlike building names, our state flag is supposed to be the banner under which all of us march and is a symbol of unity for all of us in the state of Mississippi," Taggart said. "And no matter how strongly people feel... every objective observer would have to agree: Our current state flag is not a banner that unifies Mississippians."
But despite support from some on both sides of the aisle, all previous legislative attempts to force the state to remove symbols of the Confederacy from the flag have failed. Rep. Jason White, the former chairman of the Mississippi House Rules Committee said in 2016 that “there’s no consensus in the Mississippi Legislature as to what is to be done with the state flag.”
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.
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