No penalty for universities furling Confederate-themed state flag

Published 10:30 am Wednesday, February 22, 2017

By Emily Wagster Pettus

Associated Press

JACKSON — The Mississippi House has rejected an effort to punish universities for not flying the state flag that prominently features the Confederate battle emblem.

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All eight of the state’s public universities have furled the flag in recent years amid criticism that it’s racially insensitive in a state with a 38 percent black population.

Republican Rep. William Shirley of Quitman, who is white, offered an amendment Tuesday saying any university that refuses to fly the Mississippi flag could not receive bond money. It would have cost each campus about $1 million for repair and renovation projects.

“He offered this last year, and we voted it down,” Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, told the House.

The House rejected the amendment with no debate; 52 members voted for for it and 65 voted against it.

All black representatives who were present rejected the amendment, as did many whites, including Republican Speaker Philip Gunn of Clinton.

Mississippi has used the flag since 1894, and voters chose to keep it in a 2001 election.

Supporters say they see history and heritage in the Confederate battle emblem — a red field topped by a blue tilted cross dotted with 13 white stars. Opponents say the symbol is a reminder of slavery and segregation and has often been waved by Ku Klux Klan groups.

Like other Confederate symbols across the South, the Mississippi flag has come under increased scrutiny since the June 2015 massacre of nine black worshippers in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. A white man was convicted in 2016 and sentenced to death. Before the shootings, he had posed holding the Confederate battle flag in photos that were published online.

Soon after the massacre, South Carolina lawmakers voted to remove a Confederate battle flag that had flown outside the Statehouse for many years.

Gunn and both of the Mississippi’s Republican U.S. senators said after Charleston that Mississippi should replace its flag with a symbol that could unify people. However, during the state legislative sessions in 2016 and this year, Gunn has said he couldn’t get consensus in the Republican-majority House to consider bills to redesign the flag.

In place of the state flag, some businesses have started flying a banner to commemorate 2017 as Mississippi’s bicentennial. It does not have the Confederate image.