Support to change the Mississippi state flag appeared to build this week, as religious representatives and Democratic lawmakers pushed for the legislature to act.
At present, Mississippi’s flag contains what is widely regarded as a Confederate battle star, which opponents say is an everyday reminder of the state’s racist past. With Confederate monuments toppling across the South, and many American cities gripped with protests over the death of an unarmed black man in police custody, the time for a change is propitious, leaders say.
This week members of Working Together Mississippi, an interfaith organization, held a press conference on the steps of the Roman Catholic cathedral in Jackson, with representatives from Jewish and Protestant denominations joining Catholic figures in a call for the legislature to approve a change.
“It is time,” Bishop Brian Seage of Mississippi’s Episcopal Diocese said at the rally. “It is time for a new flag that truly represents us all. We call for our legislative leaders to act now.”
“As the modern lynchings of black people by police have risen to the forefront of the national consciousness, we can no longer claim that this issue is merely one of historical significance,” noted Rober Glazer, a member of Jackson’s Jewish community at the event. “To be complacent on this issue is to be complicit.”
The Southern Baptist Convention, which is Mississippi’s largest religious group with more than 1 million estimated members, did not have a representative at the Jackson event. In 2016, however, the group voted to stop flying the flag and urged others to discontinue its use “as an act of solidarity of the whole Body of Christ, including our African-American brothers and sisters.”
Mississippians last voted on the flag in 2001 and voters by a 2-to-1 margin supported the current design, but a movement to change it is has simmered ever since. That push was given renewed prominence this month when George Floyd died while handcuffed and pinned to the street by former Minneapolis cops, an incident that precipitated demonstrations that sometimes spilled into rioting across the U.S.
Since that 2001 vote, a series of Republican governors and legislative majorities have insisted the flag should only be changed as a result of a statewide vote, and current GOP Gov. Tate Reeves had adopted that same position this week when repeatedly pressed about the flag issue at press conferences.
But Democrats in the Mississippi House are moving to force a legislative vote in the current session. However, Democratic Rep. Robert Johnson made it clear the current proposal would not specify a replacement and instead simply seeks to remove the Confederate symbol.
“The legislature in 1894 adopted this flag,” Mr. Johnson told The Clarion-Ledger prior to an appearance on CNN Thursday. “The legislature in 2020 needs to take it down.”
It’s unclear how much Republican support the measure would enjoy in the legislature, although indications are that it is growing. The Republican speaker of the house, Philip Gunn, is on record as supporting changing the flag.
“It is indeed a hopeful sign that a multiracial bipartisan effort in the state legislature to change the current flag has commenced, and we encourage all Mississippians of good conscience to contact their legislators and voice their support for change, progress, and justice,” Melissa Garriga, a board member of the Mississippi Rising Coalition which is dedicated in part to abolishing the current state flag, said in an email to The Washington Times.
It is not clear what flag Mississippi would approve should the current one be rejected. One commonly referenced option is the so-called Stennis Flag, a large blue star circled by smaller blue stars and designed by Laurin Stennis, the granddaughter of an arch segregationist, the late Sen. John C. Stennis.
The Mississippi Rising Coalition has not thrown its support behind any specific alternative.
“We continue to firmly believe the State of Mississippi should abolish the current state flag like the constitution abolished slavery,” Ms. Garriga said. “We also strongly believe the process in which Mississippi chooses the next state flag should be inclusive and center our Black and indigenous communities in the design and selection process.”
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