Confederate Flag Debate Appears Headed to Mississippi

The state House speaker says it's time to remove the Civil War rebel symbol from the state's flag.

The Mississippi State flags flies April 17, 2001 in Pascagoula, MS. Voters will decide whether to replace the state's old flag, which sports the Confederate battle cross, with a new flag that would have 20 white stars on a blue square.

Photographer: Bill Colgin/Getty Images

First, South Carolina. Next, Mississippi? 

That's where the fight over the display of the Confederate flag appears to be heading, as state House Speaker Philip Gunn on Monday said it was time to remove the Civil War rebel symbol from the state's flag.

“We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us,” Gunn, a Republican, said in a statement reported by the Clarion-Ledger newspaper. “As a Christian, I believe our state's flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed. We need to begin having conversations about changing Mississippi's flag.”

His comments came after South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from state capitol grounds in the wake of a church shooting that killed nine African-Americans in Charleston. Her decision drew support from several 2016 Republican presidential candidates. In Virginia, Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday called for an end to Confederate flag displays on license plates, according to the Washington Post.

Gunn is the first elected Republican in Mississippi to take such a position, the newspaper said. The GOP governor, Phil Bryant, said he didn't expect lawmakers to “supersede the will of the people on this issue”—a majority of voters supported keeping the Confederate symbol on the flag when they went to the polls in 2001—according to the newspaper.

Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, whose family remains influential in Republican politics, said Tuesday that there will be renewed conversations about the flag.

“I am not offended at all by our flag or the Confederate flag for that matter, but some people are,” Barbour said, appearing on MSNBC's Morning Joe. “And the ones who have to deal in Congress, the ones who have to deal in the legislature, the ones that have to deal in the county governments, they're the ones that ought to take the leadership, not the has-beens.”

He said he expects his state to revisit the topic, but suggested the decision should stay in voters' hands, as opposed to lawmakers'. 

“About 15 years ago in Mississippi, there was an effort to change our state flag, and they put it to a referendum and it failed,” Barbour said. “That's going to be ... talked about again and the decision belongs rightly to the people of Mississippi.”

U.S. Senator Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican who survived a fierce primary contest last year with help from African-American voters, on Tuesday declined to take a position on the matter. 

“That issue is something under the authority of the state legislature,” whose decision he respects, he said. “I'm not involved in the discussion of it one way or the other.”

—With assistance from Sahil Kapur in Washington.

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