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Mississippi lawmakers not erasing Confederate emblem on flag

Mississippi House Speaker Phillip Gunn

Mississippi House Speaker Phillip Gunn

JACKSON — Mississippi legislators this year won’t attempt to redesign the last state flag that features the Confederate battle emblem because leaders say they can’t find a majority to remove the symbol from the 122-year-old banner.

Tuesday was the deadline for legislative committees to act on general bills, and flag proposals are among hundreds of measures that died without being brought up for debate.

Some bills proposed redesigning the flag to remove the rebel cross, while others would have stripped state money from colleges and local governments that refuse to fly the current banner. One bill offered separate-but-equal flags, keeping the current one and having a second with a magnolia tree.

“I’m not saying that all of them are necessarily bad ideas, but we don’t have a consensus on any of them,” said Republican Rep. Jason White, chairman of the House committee in charge of the flag bills.

The public display of Confederate symbols has been widely debated since the slaying of nine black worshipers last June at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The white man charged had previously posed for photos with the rebel flag.

Days after the Charleston shootings, Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn became the first prominent Republican to say his state should redesign its flag to remove the Confederate emblem — a red field topped by a blue X dotted by 13 white stars. Gunn cited his Christian faith and said it had become “a point of offense that needs to be removed.”

As the legislative deadline approached, Gunn said Monday that he thinks voters should choose a flag design. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has been saying for months that this November would be a good time for a flag election because presidential races typically have big turnout.

Mississippi voters in 2001 decided by a 2-to-1 margin to keep the Confederate-themed flag. That election came months after the state Supreme Court ruled that although the flag had been used for generations, it had not been ensconced in state law since code books were updated in 1906.

Gunn said Tuesday that he had tried to find a majority willing to change the flag in a House where Republicans hold 60 percent of seats.

“The flag is going to change. We can deal with it now or leave for future generations to address,” Gunn said in a statement.

Democratic Rep. Ed Blackmon of Canton, a member of the Legislative Black Caucus, said he was willing to consider two flags with equal status, but not necessarily the magnolia flag that Mississippi adopted at the start of the Civil War, which was proposed as the second flag this year.

Blackmon recalled that in the early 1990s, it took three years for him and his colleagues to enact a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. They did it by creating a combination holiday to honor King and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and he said that made the issue “palatable” for a wide range of lawmakers. He said a similar approach might work for the flag.

“It’s such a highly emotional issue that somehow we’re going to have to find a way to do it,” Blackmon said of lawmakers. “Referendum certainly is not the way to do it.”

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