Mississippi, in the heart of the Deep South, appears to be on the edge of a historic debate about its identity, and how the state presents itself to the rest of the world.
Hot on the heels of a racially charged massacre in South Carolina, prominent Republicans in Mississippi are raising their voices for the first time in favor of removing the Confederate emblem from the state’s flag.
Mississippi is the only state in the country to have the Confederate insignia embedded in its flag, long a source of pride for many Mississippians but also discomfort for some, who see it as a Civil War relic and a symbol of racism. On Monday evening, the Republican speaker of the state House, Philip Gunn, called for the removal of the Confederate emblem from the state flag.
“We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us,” Speaker Gunn said in a statement. “As a Christian, I believe our state’s flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed. We need to begin having conversations about changing Mississippi’s flag.”
In South Carolina, a Confederate flag flies on the state capitol grounds, but the symbol is not a part of the state flag. Monday afternoon, five days after a massacre at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., Gov. Nikki Haley (R) called for the flag’s removal. The website of the young man charged with nine counts of murder, Dylann Roof, depicted him holding a Confederate flag and expressing white supremacist ideas, setting in motion efforts to remove the flag from its place of prominence in South Carolina’s capital.
In Mississippi, Gunn’s statement was the first by an elected Republican official calling for the insignia’s removal from the state flag. Henry Barbour, the Republican national committeeman from Mississippi, soon issued tweets in support.
MS voted 2:1 to keep our state flag in 2001, but I'm 4 change. I understand why many will want to keep it - respect that. just disagree— Henry Barbour (@HenryBarbour) June 23, 2015
As Mr. Barbour noted, Mississippi held a referendum in 2001 on whether to keep the Confederate insignia in its flag. State residents voted 2 to 1 to keep it, including Barbour, he said.
In South Carolina, after last week’s massacre, Governor Haley concluded it was time for change. She held a press conference, flanked by prominent South Carolina politicians of both parties, and called on the legislature to remove the flag from the capitol grounds.
In Mississippi, the issue of the state flag’s Confederate symbol has long been a source of discomfort for business leaders and the state’s large African American community. Some business leaders believe the symbol has held the state back economically, discouraging both investment and tourism.
But some prominent figures in the state reject the idea of altering the flag. On Saturday, after Mitt Romney called on South Carolina to remove its Confederate flag, Mississippi state Sen. Melanie Sojourner (R) slammed the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, calling his statement “an example of what is wrong with society today.”
“The flag was no more the ‘source’ of horrible acts against mankind than a gun is the ‘source’ of someone’s death. The ‘source’ is the hatred and evil that resides in the hearts of some who live and have lived among us,” wrote Senator Sojourner, who ran the unsuccessful 2014 United States Senate campaign of fellow state Sen. Chris McDaniel.
“We all have a responsibility to make certain that it is the ‘source’ we address and not place blame on something that alone could do no harm,” Sojourner continued. “Simply placing blame on something that some see as a symbol only perpetuates the problem.”
At time of writing, Sojourner had not reacted to Gunn’s statement.
In related news, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) announced Tuesday that he wants to phase out state-sponsored license plates that include an image of the Confederate flag, according to The Washington Post. Last week, the US Supreme Court ruled that Texas could reject a specialty license plate that includes the Confederate flag.
On Monday, Wal-Mart announced that its stores will no longer carry Confederate flag merchandise. Sears has followed suit.