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OTHER VIEWS — Legislature scared to take on flag issue

With last week’s actions at two of the state’s largest universities, it is becoming clear that Mississippi may be setting itself up for an angry, bitter, divisive and messy fight over the state flag that it really doesn’t need.

Last Monday, University of Mississippi officials quietly took down the state flag, which includes the controversial Confederate battle emblem, at the campus. The University of Southern Mississippi did the same thing a couple of days later.

There has been harsh criticism of the two schools for this. Defenders of the flag note that voters in a 2001 referendum opposed a change by a 2-to-1 margin. A number of Republican elected officials have cited that as a reason to leave the flag alone.

With that for background, it was a mild surprise Thursday when Gov. Phil Bryant, a USM alum, said the Legislature ought to put a flag referendum on the November 2016 ballot, because turnout is highest during presidential election years. The governor continues to maintain that if the flag is to be changed, the question should be put again to a popular vote.

It requires no great insight, however, to foresee that a flag referendum most likely would produce the same result, although the vote would probably be closer than it was 14 years ago.

Bryant and anyone else whose job includes overseeing the image of Mississippi should cringe at that prospect. What would it say to the rest of the country, and to the businesses being recruited to expand here, if Mississippi votes to remain the only state in the former Confederacy to continue to have as part of its official state insignia a symbol that is offensive to many of its black citizens?

The governor and Republican legislative leaders have to know the risks of a referendum. They also know there is one other way to solve the problem. The Legislature could make a change on its own.

It’s interesting how lawmakers respond differently to different issues. Put an initiative on Tuesday’s ballot to require more education spending, and the Legislature moves swiftly to retain its authority by producing an alternate proposal.

But suggest that lawmakers use their power to avoid a divisive battle and replace the current flag with a more unifying symbol for the state flag, and a majority of legislators duck behind a prior referendum and want to pawn it off on a future one.

The governor is right: 2016 is the best time to resolve the state flag issue. But that’s because it will be the first year of the Legislature’s new term — the perfect moment for newly elected lawmakers to choose a new flag.

After all, the Legislature has the power to decide what’s in the best long-term interest of the state. All it needs is the courage to do so.

There would be anger and criticism, but elections would be three years away. That’s plenty of time for voters to forgive incumbents. And any outcry over a new flag would be tame compared to the rancor that is sure to intensify the longer the state delays a decision.

— Greenwood Commonwealth

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