Mississippi Governor Balks at Joining Movement Against Confederate Flag

With a governor facing re-election in November and an extreme scarcity of polling on the issue, the Confederate emblem that appears in the Magnolia state's flag is proving harder to retire.

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The state flag of Mississippi, which incorporates the flag of the Confederate States of America in the top left corner, is displayed with the flags of the other 49 states and territories in the tunnel connecting the senate office building and the U.S. Capitol June 23, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As Southern states act to remove vestiges of the Confederate flag in the wake of a Charleston church massacre last week, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant isn't making any hasty moves.

"Mississippians have already had a discussion about the state flag," Bryant said in an emailed statement on Monday afternoon. "It was put to a vote, and an overwhelming majority chose to keep the flag," he added, referring to a 2001 referendum.

Bryant said that "Mississippians have the right to revisit that decision either through their elected representatives in the Legislature or through the initiative process," but he does not appear eager to follow South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley's lead in calling for the flag to come down. The governor has the power to call the legislature, which is not scheduled to be back in Jackson until January, into special session to act. He gave no suggestion he intends to do that.

In the wake of the massacre of nine African-Americans studying their Bibles in a Charleston, South Carolina, church last week, southern states are reconsidering how prominently they want to display a battle flag flown in the final throes of slavery. On Tuesday, South Carolina lawmakers, heeding a call from Haley, proposed a measure that would remove the Confederate flag from the Capitol grounds. Tennessee lawmakers want a statue of a Confederate soldier displayed in the state Capitol gone. Texas prevailed in a U.S. Supreme Court case last week upholding the state's right to disallow Confederate flag license plates. Taking advantage of that ruling, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe this week ordered an end to Confederate flag license plates.

The Mississippi governor's stance on the issue is all the starker given that high-ranking Republicans, including the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, and former presidential contender Mitt Romney, have disavowed the symbol. Even within Mississippi, Republican speaker of the House Philip Gunn has called for the state to retire the flag, the highest ranking official in the state to do so.

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant
Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant
Photographer: Jim Stem/Bloomberg

But for Governor Bryant, the political calculus isn't so simple. In November, Mississippians will hold gubernatorial elections, and primaries for that election are just weeks away in August.

"It seems that Governor Bryant doesn't want to risk political capital on this issue ahead of an election," said Marvin P. King, Jr., associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi.

Part of the problem, said King, is that there is no recent polling on the issue, leaving lawmakers to rely on the last time public opinion was rendered on the matter. That was 15 years ago.

In the 1990s, as state like Georgia and Alabama were gradually setting aside the Civil War-era flag in many official capacities, Mississippians fought to keep theirs, saying their heritage shouldn't be folded up so easily. The Mississippi chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sued the state, saying the banner that has flown over the state since 1894 violated the state constitution.

In an unusual ruling in 2000, the Mississippi Supreme Court found that the state had failed to officially adopt the state flag a century earlier and it therefore couldn't violate the state constitution. That prompted the state to convene a flag-redesign committee that held hearings and pored over colors and symbols for months.

The proposed new flag, which had featured thick bars of red, white and blue and a field of 20 white stars representing the state being 20th to be admitted to the union, was submitted to the legislature and then placed on the ballot for a referendum in April 2001. Voters rejected the proposed flag by a landslide, and the blue saltire and 13 white stars flew on.

The chair of the flag redesign committee, former Mississippi governor William Winter, recalled being heartbroken when it failed to gain traction in his state. He says he's hopeful that there will be a renewed push to do away with it once and for all.

"Every citizen of Mississippi ought to be able to look at that flag and say 'that is my flag' and that is not the case today," said Winter, noting that he's a grandson of a Confederate soldier. "I think we're making a mistake clinging to that image."

Mississippi Senator Kenneth Jones, a Democrat from Canton, Mississippi, who leads the legislative black caucus, says he hopes the Charleston tragedy will prompt a new day in the Magnolia State.

"Those images are producing very, very ugly racism, violence and all of that," said Jones. "I just hope Mississippi will follow South Carolina's lead without us having to get our own wakeup call."

(The original version of this article has been updated to clarify the move Texas made.)

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