Mississippi faces reckoning on Confederate emblem in flag
JACKSON, miss. (AP) - The young activists who launched a protest movement after George Floyd's death bring new energy to a long smoldering debate over the Confederate Battle emblem that white supremacists embedded in the state of Mississippi more than 125 years ago to have.
Anti-racism protests have recently overthrown Confederate statues and monuments in the United States, and even NASCAR has banned the display of the rebel flag. But Mississippi has been a holdover from displaying the emblem in the top left corner of its banner for years.
Republican governor Tate Reeves rejects the idea of a legislative vote to delete the symbol. If the flag is to be redesigned, "it should be the people who make this decision, not some backroom deal by a group of politicians in Jackson," Reeves said this week.
The mere mention of removing the Confederate emblem from the Mississippi flag causes trouble for its defenders, who tell people to leave the state if they don't like it.
The problem has received fresh impetus since Floyd was killed by the Minneapolis police last month. Thousands of people gathered in downtown Jackson on June 6 for a protest organized by Black Lives Matter. One of the organizers, 18-year-old Maisie Brown, read a list of demands that began with "removing all Confederate symbols and memorabilia".
A loud cheer rose from the racially diverse crowd in a street in front of the governor's house. Reeves wasn't home to hear it. He was out of town with his family.
Mississippi, with a black population of 38%, still has dozens of statues of rebel soldiers in front of courthouses. It is also the only state with a flag that contains the Confederate battle emblem - a red box with a blue X dotted with 13 white stars.
Reeves has repeatedly refused to answer reporters' questions as to whether he believes the flag represents the state properly. The first year governor declared April the month of Confederate Heritage.
Mississippi has used the Confederate emblem in its flag since 1894, when white supremacists in the state government adopted it after the reconstruction. Georgia put a large confederate battle symbol on its state flag in 1956 during a backlash against the civil rights movement. That state removed the symbol from its banner in 2001, the same year that Mississippi voters decided to keep it on their flag.
During two press conferences this week, Reeves only repeated what he said during the Governor's race in 2019 - if the flag is to be changed, it should be done through a nationwide election. He said every Mississippi resident could launch a new election initiative that would require signatures from more than 100,000 voters.
"If people think it's time to change the flag, the flag will change," Reeves said Monday.
Brown, who was born a few months after the 2001 Mississippi flag election, said she had little patience with the governor's position.
"I think it's an excuse to say," I'll let Mississippi decide "instead of correcting an injustice," Brown said Tuesday. "For Mississippi to show that it cares for its citizens who are not white, they have to take the flag off."
The adoption of a flag change law would require a veto-secure two-thirds majority in a Republican-led legislature. Some lawmakers said this week that they were trying to build a bipartisan coalition to achieve this leeway, but they acknowledge that it is difficult. Several legislators welcome the flag, and many believe that voting for change will ruin their political careers.
George C. Bond, chairman of the Mississippi division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said lawmakers should not do political business to change the flag. He said hate groups "abused" the Confederate symbol and that the Mississippi National Guard soldiers carried the state flag into battle, starting with the Spanish-American War and continuing until the current war on terrorism.
"This flag represents home for them, represents Mississippi," said Bond.
The 2001 flag referendum included a proposal to replace the Confederate emblem with a blue rectangle crowned by circles of white stars to represent Mississippi as the 20th state. Critics mocked it as the "pizza flag".
Another design has gained importance in recent years as people fly it in their homes and stores. The "Stennis flag" has red bars at both ends and a white center with blue stars - 19 small ones orbiting a large 20th. The flag was designed by Jackson artist Laurin Stennis, granddaughter of U.S. Senator John C. Stennis, and served 41 years before his retirement in 1989.
The older Stennis was a segregationist for much of his career. His granddaughter rejects this attitude and says she wants her design to unify the state. Critics say Mississippi should not adopt a flag with any connection to the former senator.
Brown said the leaders of Black Lives Matter in Mississippi want a public discussion about a possible new flag design and bring in ideas from different groups of people.
All eight Mississippi public universities stopped raising the state flag years ago because of the Confederate symbol. Many removed it after a white supremacist shot worshipers in a church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015.
Black and white religious leaders in Mississippi made a statement on Thursday calling the flag the "root cause of disagreement and discontent." Two dozen attended a press conference and urged lawmakers to remove the Confederate symbol. You said a nationwide vote would be divisive.
Ronnie Crudup Sr., administrative bishop of the Fellowship of International Churches, said when his father and other black soldiers were together in their uniforms after returning from the Korean War to Mississippi, a white man used a racial fraud against them and told them nothing had happened changed.
"By not changing the flag," said Crudup, "let's tell the world," nothing has changed. "
Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.
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