How has the Confederate flag lasted so long in Mississippi?

One year after the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Mississippi remains the only state to keep the Confederate symbol on its flag. 

Rogelio V. Solis/AP/File
In this Jan. 19, 2016 file photo, a couple leaves the grounds of the state Capitol in Jackson, Miss., after participating in a rally in support of keeping the Confederate battle emblem on the state flag.

Last June, the racially motivated shooting of nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina plunged the country into a debate over the relevancy and potential dangers of the Confederate flag. 

The flag, which had been featured in photographs with the shooter, was removed from South Carolina statehouse grounds less than a month later. In the months that followed, the flag was thrust into the national spotlight as a symbol of contentious race relations in the US. Municipalities around the country voted on whether to fly it, students were suspended from school for wearing clothes bearing the Confederate symbol, and social media users urged others to tear down privately owned flags on homes and vehicles. 

A year later, much of the commotion has died down, though the flag is still subject to heated debate. The debate is especially alive and well in Mississippi, the last remaining state to feature the Confederate symbol on its state flag. Some cities, such as Macon and Columbus, have voted or issued executive orders to remove the flag, whereas others, including Petal and Gautier, have voted to keep it. 

Earlier this week, opponents of the flag held a rally in front of the US Capitol in an effort to draw attention to a federal lawsuit arguing that the flag incites racial violence and infringes upon 14th Amendment protections for black Mississippians. The lawsuit was filed after the state Legislature failed to act on bills proposed following the Charleston mass shooting.

"This is about America making a decision about who it is," rally co-organizer Aunjanue Ellis, who lives in McComb, Miss., told CNN. 

Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn, a Republican, took an anti-flag stand shortly after the Charleston shooting occurred.  

"We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us," Mr. Gunn said in a statement. "I believe our state's flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed." 

Twenty-one pieces of legislation were put forth by lawmakers following Gunn's statement, some in support of the flag and some in opposition to it. Anti-flag proposals included replacing the current flag with the historical magnolia flag, which was used by Mississippi prior to 1894, or appointing a commission to design a new flag.

Pro-flag lawmakers suggested requiring that the state flag be flown on government property, and also proposed withholding public funds from public colleges and universities that have ceased to fly the flag since the Charleston shooting, such as the University of Mississippi and the University of Southern Mississippi. 

Despite a plethora of wide-ranging proposals, none of the legislation made it out of committee. 

This isn't the first time the question of whether to keep the current state flag has come up. In a 2001 referendum, Mississippians voted on whether to keep the Confederate emblem on the flag or replace it with 20 white stars to represent Mississippi's status as the 20th state. Sixty-five percent voted in favor of keeping the current flag. 

"If the citizens of our state want to revisit that decision, and I am sure at some point we may, it will best be decided by the people of Mississippi, not by outsiders or media elites or politicians in a back room," said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves last year. Similar sentiments have been expressed by Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann and Gov. Phil Bryant, who said in October that he'd like to see the Legislature put the issue on the ballot in 2016. 

In the meantime, citizens on both sides of the debate are collecting signatures for potential ballot referendums. 

"It's been our state flag since 1894. The flag means a lot to people," said Wallace Mason, a member of the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and one of the leaders working toward Intiative 58, a referendum on a constitutional amendment to keep the current flag. 

"It's gone through a lot of history in Mississippi and it stands for the history of Mississippi," Mr. Mason told the Sun Herald, a newspaper in South Mississippi. "It doesn't stand for any issues that have been brought up against it." 

On the opposite side of things is One Mississippi Flag for All, a group that's collecting signatures for Initiative 55, a ballot referendum that would remove the Confederate flag. 

"I think that the momentum for support for changing the flag is growing," said spokeswoman Lea Campbell to the Sun Herald. "I think people are starting to realize that it is harmful to the perception of what those outside of Mississippi think of Mississippi; harmful to economic development; and harmful to racial progress and reconciliation."

While both groups are optimistic, the soonest one of these initiatives could reach a statewide ballot is 2018. 

Change of this sort is bound to take time, said Meghan Annison, spokeswoman for Speaker Gunn, to CNN.

"The state of Mississippi's current flag has been in place since 1894," Ms. Annison said. "Speaker Gunn understands time and work are needed to help properly address the best approach to making the changes needed regarding the current state of Mississippi flag."  

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