As of this writing, the ultimate decision about whether the Mississippi Legislature will change the state flag remains up in the air. But developments this week indicate a stronger possibility of a legislative decision rather than a voter referendum.
For a couple of years now, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn has been by far the most courageous voice among the Republican state leadership in trying to figure out a way to get the Confederate battle emblem removed to something less controversial.
Other GOP leaders, if they have supported a flag change, have taken the politically safer route that the choice should fall upon the voters. They have said that knowing that a referendum would probably fail, although by a narrower margin than it did in 2001. The buildup to the vote would also stir up hard feelings at a time when the state needs positive racial developments, not negative ones.
The Legislature needs to be the one to do this once, take the heat for a couple of weeks and then move on to more substantial issues.
The Mississippi Economic Council, the state’s chamber of commerce, has long supported Gunn’s position, but that still hasn’t produced much momentum in favor of change. Conservative legislators, who also ignore the MEC on the need for a gas tax increase, seem to not be as pro-business as they claim but prefer to cater to their reactionary base rather than do what the state’s business experts maintain is needed to grow our moribund economy.
But this week several other internal groups leaped in to throw their support behind a change, most notably the Mississippi Baptist Convention. It’s hard to call that organization, representing what is by far the state’s largest and most influential denomination, “liberal outside agitators.” In fact, it’s an extremely conservative group that realizes clearly that the flag is not good for our state from a spiritual or economic perspective.
Having the Confederate symbol representing the state is offensive to Mississippi’s large black population, and it makes it difficult for large corporations to do business here because they must weigh the risk of backlash if they are perceived as supporting something that for many years has been used by white supremacists.
The flag needs to be something that every Mississippian can be proud of. The current version clearly doesn’t meet that most basic of standards.
The argument that the Legislature is usurping the power of the people by choosing the flag doesn’t hold water. The Legislature chose the current flag in 1894 and should be able to change. Just because the Legislature deflected its duties to the people in 2001 because it was scared doesn’t mean that the Legislature doesn’t still hold those responsibilities.
It should be noted that the current flag was adopted in an era of strong racial discrimination in Southern states. The 1890 Mississippi Constitution had recently been passed that instituted many of the terrible Jim Crow laws that have been a burden on this state’s neck in many ways even up until the present. It’s past time to remove another symbol of that era and begin thinking more about a prosperous future than a tortured past.