Emotions are running high as Mississippi legislators consider the future of the last state flag in the nation that includes the Confederate battle emblem.
The tension’s considerable, according to Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, who supports changing Mississippi’s flag to another without the emblem. He verified Friday that it was likely the Legislature would meet Saturday to act on the issue but declined to discuss details.
“I can’t predict what will happen,” Jordan said. “Hopefully, we can get to it tomorrow (Saturday) one way or the other.”
“They asked us not to speak about it,” said Jordan, who would not name those who made the request. Other Greenwood-area lawmakers did not immediately return telephone calls seeking information.
“I don’t want my opinion to hurt or harm anything,” the senator said. He noted that the movement for a new flag has generated broad bipartisan support and that this in itself has been unifying. The country, he explained, is watching Mississippi to see what it will do. He said what the nation is seeing in part is “us now as we are trying to work together ... image-wise and economics-wise.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Karl Oliver, R-Winona, issued a statement Thursday in which he objected to statewide division over changing the flag.
In 2017, Oliver commented that people who took down Confederate monuments should be “lynched” — a remark that cost him a legislative leadership position and for which he apologized. His position now appears to be different, at least in regards to the flag. “I am choosing to attempt to unite our state and ask each of you to join me in supporting a flag that creates unity — now is the time,” Oliver wrote, according to Mississippi Today.
Pressure to change the flag has grown rapidly over the past three weeks amid nationwide protests against racial injustice.
Legislators could adopt a new Mississippi flag without Confederate imagery. Or, they could kick the volatile issue to a statewide election, giving voters choices that might or might not include the current banner, according to The Associated Press.
The battle emblem — a red field topped by a blue X with 13 white stars — has been in the upper-left corner of the Mississippi flag since 1894. White supremacists in the Legislature put it there during backlash to the political power that African Americans gained after the Civil War.
The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the flag lacked official status. State laws were updated in 1906, and portions dealing with the flag were not carried forward. Legislators set a flag election in 2001, and voters opted to keep the rebel-themed design.
But the flag has remained divisive in a state with a 38% Black population. All of the state’s public universities and several cities and counties have stopped flying it because of the Confederate symbol, which many see as racist.
Influential business, religious, educational and sports groups are calling on Mississippi to drop the Confederate symbol. Flag supporters say the banner should be left alone or put on the statewide ballot so voters can decide its fate.
Joe Brister, a retiree from Madison, circled the state Capitol on Friday in a flatbed truck with a large hand-painted sign showing the Mississippi flag and the words: “They will take FLAG GUNS and Freedom.” A Mississippi flag, a Trump 2020 banner and two other flags fluttered from poles on the truck.
Brister, who is white, said he’s unhappy about the push to remove monuments and rename streets around the United States. He said voters should resolve questions about the Mississippi flag.
“I’m just here displaying the flag and trying to get our (legislators) to do their job instead of do what the out-of-town lobbyists and the big banks and the big money in Mississippi tell them to do,” Brister said. “It’s the same as Washington.”
The Rev. Kenneth Maurice Davis, president of the Mississippi National Baptist Convention and pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in D’Iberville, was among a large group of African American religious leaders at the Capitol Thursday. “Take down this flag — this symbol that continues to sway in the breeze of prejudice and racism,” Davis said. “Take down this flag — this symbol that waves in the gale forces of intolerance and narrow-mindedness.”
Pastors and others with him at a news conference clapped and said, “Yeah, yeah.”
“Stop hiding behind a public vote and do what is right, now,” Davis said to legislators.
The state’s legislative session is almost over, and it takes a two-thirds majority of the House and Senate to consider a bill after normal deadlines have passed. Leaders have worked to secure those majorities. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves said Wednesday that he will not veto a bill if legislators pass one.
Oliver said in his statement, “When my grandchildren and their children are studying this time in history, there will be questions. I want them to know that it was because of my love for them and Mississippi, and Christ’s love for me, and for my fellow Mississippians, I based my decision on what I believed to be best for everyone.”