JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Emotions are running high as Mississippi legislators consider the future of the last state flag in the U.S. that includes the Confederate battle emblem.
Leaders say a vote at the state Capitol could happen as soon as Saturday. Pressure to change the flag has grown rapidly over the past three weeks amid nationwide protests against racial injustice.
Legislators could adopt a new Mississippi flag without Confederate imagery. Or, they could kick the volatile issue to a statewide election, giving voters choices that might or might not include the current banner.
The battle emblem — a red field topped by a blue X with 13 white stars — has been in the upper-left corner of the Mississippi flag since 1894. White supremacists in the Legislature put it there during backlash to the political power that African Americans gained after the Civil War.
The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the flag lacked official status. State laws were updated in 1906, and portions dealing with the flag were not carried forward. Legislators set a flag election in 2001, and voters kept the rebel-themed design.
But, the flag has remained divisive in a state with a 38% Black population. All of the state’s public universities and several cities and counties have stopped flying it because of the Confederate symbol that many see as racist.
Influential business, religious, education and sports groups are calling on Mississippi to drop the Confederate symbol. Flag supporters say the banner should be left alone or put on the statewide ballot for voters to decide its fate.
Joe Brister, a retiree from Madison, Mississippi, circled the state Capitol on Friday in a flatbed truck with a large hand-painted sign showing the Mississippi flag and the words: “They will take FLAG GUNS and Freedom.” A Mississippi flag, a Trump 2020 banner and two other flags fluttered from poles on the truck.
Brister, who is white, said he’s unhappy about the push to remove monuments and rename streets around the United States. He said questions about the Mississippi flag should be resolved by voters.
“I’m just here displaying the flag and trying to get our (legislators) to do their job instead of do what the out-of-town lobbyists and the big banks and the big money in Mississippi tell them to do,” Brister said. “It’s the same as Washington.”
Rev. Kenneth Maurice Davis, president of the Mississippi National Baptist Convention and pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in the coastal city of D’Iberville, was among a large group of African American religious leaders at the Capitol Thursday.
“Take down this flag — this symbol that continues to sway in the breeze of prejudice and racism,” Davis said. “Take down this flag — this symbol that waves in the gale forces of intolerance and narrow-mindedness.”
Pastors and others with him at a news conference clapped and said, “Yeah, yeah.”
“Stop hiding behind a public vote and do what is right, now,” Davis said to legislators. “Come out of the shadows and stand in the marvelous light and bring Mississippi out of the dark ages of racism.”
The state’s annual legislative session is almost over, and it takes a two-thirds majority of the House and Senate to consider a bill after the normal deadlines have passed. Leaders have been working to secure those majorities. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves said Wednesday that he will not veto a bill if legislators pass one.
Republican state Rep. Karl Oliver, who said in 2017 that people should be “lynched” for taking down Confederate monuments, issued a statement Thursday night that he will vote for a new flag “that creates unity.”
“When my grandchildren and their children are studying this time in history there will be questions,” Oliver wrote. “I want them to know that it was because of my love for them and Mississippi, and Christ’s love for me, and for my fellow Mississippians, I based my decision on what I believed to be best for everyone.”
Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.