Mississippi faces struggle over Confederate emblem in flag

July 13, 2015 in News

A statue erected in memory of the mothers sisters, wives and daughters of the Confederate soldiers sits before the state Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, June 23, 2015, as the state flag flies behind it. Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said Tuesday, that Mississippi voters, not lawmakers, should decide whether to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag. 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. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

A statue erected in memory of the mothers sisters, wives and daughters of the Confederate soldiers sits before the state Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, June 23, 2015, as the state flag flies behind it. Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said Tuesday, that Mississippi voters, not lawmakers, should decide whether to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag. 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. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

(AP) Now that South Carolina has removed a Confederate battle flag from its statehouse lawn, the next big struggle over Old South symbols is shaping up in Mississippi, where the rebel X has fluttered over the Capitol and other public buildings for more than a century as part of the state flag.

Many in Mississippi are girding for a long, contentious debate about an emblem that has come under fresh scrutiny since the tragedy that ultimately propelled the change in South Carolina — the massacre of nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston. The white man charged in the slayings, Dylann Storm Roof, had posed with the Confederate battle flag in photos that were posted online before the attack that police say was motivated by racial hatred.

In both South Carolina and Mississippi, Confederate symbols have caused friction for decades.

Supporters embrace the battle flag as a reminder of ancestors who fought for the Confederacy or as an emblem of regional pride. Critics see it as a symbol of a defiant white supremacist society that fought to perpetuate slavery and segregation.

Mississippi NAACP president Derrick Johnson says the Confederate symbol should be erased from the Mississippi banner because it represents racial hatred and exclusion.

“We appeal to Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant to recognize the moral urgency for Mississippi to move without delay toward our next phase of progression,” Johnson said Thursday. “It’s time to write the next chapter of our history.”

Johnson said Republican Bryant needs to show “the same moral courage and leadership” as other southern elected officials who advocate retiring the Confederate battle flag to museums, including the Republican governors of Alabama and South Carolina.

Alabama’s Robert Bentley ordered Confederate flags removed from the state Capitol grounds in Montgomery after the Charleston slayings. And while South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley had previously supported keeping the battle flag flying outside the Capitol in Columbia, she reversed course in the past three weeks and pushed for a new law to remove the flag as a sign of reconciliation.

Mississippi is the only state that includes the Confederate battle emblem in its state flag; it’s been there since 1894. In a 2001 statewide election, people voted nearly 2-to-1 to keep the design.

After the Charleston massacre, Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn became the first top-level Republican in the GOP-controlled state to say Mississippi should change its flag. Gunn, a leader in his local Baptist church, said his faith led him to believe the Confederate emblem he said had become offensive to many. The state’s two Republican U.S. senators, Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, followed his lead and advocated change.

Bryant and Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves say they stand by results of the flag election 14 years ago. But, they also say if the design is reconsidered, it should be decided again by voters and not by legislators.

Jeppie Barbour, a brother of Republican former Gov. Haley Barbour, said last week that Mississippi should keep its flag because the Confederate emblem represents ancestors who fought for “the freedom of the South not to get bossed around by a bunch of Yankees.”

“Every time that we do something, we have a busload from somewhere up north come to tell us how terrible we are,” Jeppie Barbour said at the state Capitol. “I don’t think we’re so terrible.”

One of Jeppie Barbour’s sons, Republican consultant and lobbyist Henry Barbour, is on the other side of the debate.

“How can we keep things the same?” Henry Barbour tweeted June 22 after Gunn called for change. “The flag didn’t cause Charleston, but it represents hatred to many, especially our black brothers/sisters.”

This is a statewide election year in Mississippi, with the governor, lieutenant governor and all legislative seats on the ballot. The next regular legislative session begins in January, and Bryant says he won’t call legislators into special session before then to consider changing the flag. He says he reserves special sessions for disaster recovery or economic development projects, and he believes the flag fits neither category.

Groups for and against the flag have already rallied outside the state Capitol the past two weeks.

Rafael Sanchez, a 34-year-old McComb resident, was among about 40 people who gathered on the building’s south steps on Monday to support the state banner. In an interview after South Carolina lawmakers voted to remove the Confederate flag in Columbia, Sanchez said he thinks people are reacting on emotion.

“This turmoil didn’t exist a month ago,” Sanchez, who is white, said Thursday. “They just used a shooting, which is unfortunate, to create tension between races and between left wing and right wing advocates.”

Chuck Patterson, a 33-year-old Gulfport resident, said the flag needs to change because it doesn’t represent him or other African-Americans. He also believes it hurts Mississippi’s business prospects by making the state appear backward and hostile.

“It’s like you’re digging a hole and throwing the dirt right back on it,” Patterson said.

Some public officials are already opting to fold the flag. Clarksdale Mayor Bill Luckett, a white Democrat who was elected two years ago in a majority-black city, ordered the state flag removed from a pole outside City Hall early this month. Luckett and his longtime friend and business partner, actor Morgan Freeman, supported the 2001 campaign to change the banner.

Luckett said he decided to remove the state flag from City Hall when he saw the photo of Roof posing with the Confederate flag.

“That was kind of a tipping point for me,” Luckett said. “We need a flag that unites and not divides.”