Mississippi flag change? State unlikely to remove Confederate flag soon

Mississippi flag change: A group of more than 60 prominent former and current residents of Mississippi signed a letter calling for the state to strike the Confederate symbol. Why experts don't see change happening quickly.

Rogelio V. Solis/File/AP
The state flag of Mississippi is unfurled against the front of the Governor's Mansion in Jackson, Miss., June 23, 2015. Jimmy Buffett, John Grisham, and Morgan Freeman are among many famous current and former Mississippi residents asking the state to remove the Confederate battle emblem from its flag.

As part of a growing chorus to remove the Confederate battle emblem from Mississippi’s state flag, a group of more than 60 prominent former and current residents took out a full-page advertisement in Jackson's Clarion-Ledger Sunday calling for the state to strike the symbol.

The letter was signed by notables like actor Morgan Freeman, musician Jimmy Buffett, and author John Grisham. Mississippi is the only state where the symbol still flies over the statehouse.

"It is simply not fair, or honorable, to ask black Mississippians to attend schools, compete in athletic events, work in the public sector, serve in the National Guard, and go about their normal lives with a state flag that glorifies a war fought to keep their ancestors enslaved," the letter says. "It's time for Mississippi to fly a flag for all its people."

Like many former Confederate states, Mississippi has grappled with the issue before. In 2001, a referendum to change the flag’s design was put in front of voters, who opted in a landslide to keep the current styling.

But even though it's a decade and a half later, and even though the Confederate battle emblem has been removed elsewhere recently, it appears unlikely that Mississippi will remove the symbol from its flag soon.

Greg Stewart, executive director of Beauvoir, the home and library of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, said he was unimpressed by the ad’s call to action.

"Fifteen years forward, there’s no new evidence that it’s hurting businesses, and in the interim, hip-hop artists have appropriated the symbol. So obviously it's not offensive," Mr. Stewart said.

He also pointed to the fact that a majority of the letter’s cosigners no longer live in the state. That may work against the letter's aim, with public opinion swayed toward keeping the flag as a form of rebellion, says John Bruce, a University of Mississippi political science professor.

“I was here during the prior referendum, and in the beginning, public opinion polls were mixed,” he says. “But when there were these threats from the outside, then opposition to changing the flag exploded.”

Renewed calls for the symbol’s removal came after the brutal shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in which nine black parishioners were killed. The suspect in the attack, a white supremacist, had posed in photos with Confederate flags.

Last month, the flag was removed from the grounds of the South Carolina State House grounds after a special legislative session was convened for the purpose.

But Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) has declined a similar move for his state and has warned lawmakers not to override the 2001 referendum.

"A vast majority of Mississippians voted to keep the state’s flag, and I don’t believe the Mississippi Legislature will act to supersede the will of the people on this issue,” the governor said in a statement.

A survey of lawmakers by The Clarion-Ledger found that 64 of Mississippi's legislators said they supported changing the flag, 24 opposed it, and nine said they were undecided – but 96 wouldn't respond or give an answer. The majority of those in support of changing the flag were Democrats.

Among the prominent – and perhaps surprising – supporters of the symbol’s removal is Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn, a major Republican figure in the state.  

"We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us," Representative Gunn, a leader in his local Baptist church, 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."

Still, the political pressure to change the flag’s design remains low.

"Even as the speaker has decided to take a courageous stand against his own party, he still has to go against the governor and lieutenant governor, who totally don’t want the issue to come up," Professor Bruce says.

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