JACKSON — Mississippi voters, not lawmakers, should decide whether to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag, Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said Tuesday.
Reeves, who presides over the state Senate, spoke about the issue a day after Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn called the emblem offensive and said the state flag should change.
Mississippi voters decided by a 2-to-1 margin in 2001 to keep the flag that has been used since Reconstruction, with the Confederate symbol in one corner. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has said he supports those election results.
Debate about the flag rekindled after last week’s massacre of black worshippers in a South Carolina church.
“The same discussion South Carolinians are having now is one that Mississippians had 14 years ago when nearly two-thirds of our state voted to keep our current flag,” Reeves said in a news release. “If the citizens of our state want to revisit that decision, and I am sure at some point we may, it will best be decided by the people of Mississippi, not by outsiders or media elites or politicians in a back room.”
The Commercial Dispatch newspaper in Columbus, Mississippi, ran a front-page editorial Tuesday, saying the state flag should change and the Confederate symbol “represents a disgusting period of our history.” It was accompanied by a large image of the current flag, with a black X drawn over it.
“Agree or not, for some in our state it is a symbol of hate, a reference to a time when Mississippians felt so strongly in their state’s right to own blacks that they took up arms to defend that right,” the editorial said.
The Mississippi NAACP, which pushed to change the flag in 2001, is calling again for a redesign that eliminates the Confederate symbol. In a statement late Monday, the civil-rights group referred to photos of the man charged in the Charleston slayings, Dylann Storm Roof, holding the Confederate battle flag.
The NAACP statement said “the images of him with the Confederate flag demonstrate why Mississippi needs to make sure symbols of our state’s ugly history are never promoted or celebrated.”
Mississippi lawmakers’ next regular session begins in January.
The state Supreme Court ruled in May 2000 that the 1894 Mississippi flag lacked official recognition because when state laws were updated in 1906, sections dealing with the flag and the state coat of arms were not put into the new code. Democrat Ronnie Musgrove, who was governor in 2000, created a 17-member flag commission that held a series of public hearings, some of which degenerated into shouting matches between flag supporters and opponents.
The April 2001 ballot had two options: The 1894 flag, or an alternative that replaced the Confederate emblem with circles of 20 stars to represent Mississippi’s status as the 20th state in the union.
The 2-to-1 margin to keep the flag roughly reflected the white-to-black balance of the state population, and with few exceptions the 1894 flag prevailed in majority-white precincts, while the proposed new flag was favored in majority-black precincts.
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JACKSON — A top Mississippi lawmaker said Monday that the Confederate battle emblem is offensive and needs to be removed from the state flag.
House Speaker Philip Gunn became the first top-tier Republican to call for a change in the flag, which has had the Confederate symbol in the upper left corner since Reconstruction.
“We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us,” Gunn, a leader in his local Baptist church, said in a statement. “As a Christian, I believe our state’s flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed. We need to begin having conversations about changing Mississippi’s flag.”
Mississippi and Tennessee officials are grappling with whether to retain Old South symbols, even as South Carolina leaders are pushing to remove a Confederate battle flag that flies outside the statehouse there.
Mississippi voters decided by a 2-to-1 margin in 2001 to keep the state flag that has been used since 1894. It features the Confederate battle emblem — a blue X with 13 stars, over a red field.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant on Monday repeated his long-held position that the state should keep the flag as is.
“A vast majority of Mississippians voted to keep the state’s flag, and I don’t believe the Mississippi Legislature will act to supersede the will of the people on this issue,” Bryant said in a statement.
Democratic Sen. Kenny Wayne Jones of Canton, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said the Confederate emblem is a “symbol of hatred” often associated with racial violence. Jones said the flag represents the power structure’s resistance to change during the 1960s and ’70s, when civil rights activists were pushing to dismantle segregation and expand voting rights.
“We should be constantly re-examining these types of stereotypes that label our state for what it used to be a long time ago,” Jones told The Associated Press.
At the Tennessee Capitol in Nashville, a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and an early Ku Klux Klan leader, has sat in an alcove outside the Senate chamber for decades.
Democratic and Republican leaders are calling for the bust to be removed. Craig Fitzhugh, the state House Democratic leader, said it should go to the archives or a museum and be replaced in the Capitol by a statue of Lois DeBerry, an African-American who became the first female speaker pro tempore of the Tennessee House. Women and minorities are underrepresented in government symbols, Fitzhugh wrote.
“We need to revisit what we have displayed in the Capitol so that it better represents a Tennessee for all of us,” he wrote Monday.
Since the 2001 Mississippi election, bills that proposed changing the flag have gained no traction, with legislators saying voters settled the issue.
The massacre of nine worshippers at a black church in South Carolina last week renewed public debate about the Confederate battle flag. The white suspect, Dylann Storm Roof, appeared in photos holding the banner.
Russell Moore, a Mississippi native who serves as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote in his blog Friday that the Confederate flag — including the emblem on the Mississippi state flag — should be retired. He said its connection with the “great evil” of slavery makes it incompatible with Christianity.
“White Christians ought to think about what that flag says to our African-American brothers and sisters in Christ, especially in the aftermath of yet another act of white supremacist terrorism against them,” Moore wrote. “The gospel frees us from scrapping for our ‘heritage’ at the expense of others.”
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