Lawmaker: State flag spat could gum up Mississippi policy work

Published 9:54 am Friday, March 10, 2017

By Emily Wagster Pettus

Associated Press

JACKSON — A top Mississippi lawmaker is blocking an effort to punish universities that refuse to fly the Confederate-themed state flag — a symbol that critics see as racist.

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The state House passed a bill Wednesday saying public universities could not receive certain tax breaks unless they display the flag. All eight schools have removed it because of the Confederate battle emblem.

The bill was held for more debate, but Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, said Thursday that he will kill the bill by not bringing it up.

“It’s really built a lot of animosity,” Smith said of the flag proposal.

However, the fight persists.

A white lawmaker, Republican Rep. William Shirley of Quitman, is trying to put the flag provision into other bills. Legislative Black Caucus members say they will slow down work in the House to protest Shirley’s effort. They did so Wednesday by having bills read aloud.

Mississippi’s flag, used since 1894, is the last state banner in the nation to prominently feature the Confederate battle emblem — a red field topped by a tilted blue cross dotted by 13 white stars. Voters chose to keep the flag in a 2001 election. But, like other Old South symbols, it has come under intense public debate since the June 2015 massacre of nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The white man convicted in the slayings had previously posed for online photos holding a Confederate battle flag.

Shirley has said that if Mississippi universities take state money, they should fly the official state symbol — whatever design it has. He was one of several lawmakers who participated in a 2016 rally outside the state Capitol in support of the current flag.

The Black Caucus chairwoman, Democratic Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes of Gulfport, said the flag is offensive and should be redesigned.

“When I look at that flag, I see a Ku Klux Klansman,” Williams-Barnes said Thursday.

Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn of Clinton said soon after the Charleston slayings that Mississippi should change its flag to a design that would unify the state, where the population is 38 percent black. Gunn has not offered a proposal. Bills to alter the flag have stalled because Gunn said there is not a House majority willing to vote for change.

Gunn said telling universities to fly the flag could create First Amendment problems.

“By taking the flag down, they are saying, ‘We do not agree with the message that this flag sends.’ And, so, you’ve got government stepping up and saying, ‘Because we give you money, We’re going to force you to do something that you find personally offensive,’” Gunn said. “I believe a lot of people would have a problem with that.”