The Confederate-based Mississippi state flag continues to be a lightning rod of controversy, and several local lawmakers are supporting a legislative vote to change the flag.
According to polling conducted by Mississippi Today, representatives in favor of a legislative vote to change the controversial flag, which prominently features the battle emblem of the Confederate States of America, include Democrat Percy W. Watson of District 103, which includes Forrest County, and Republican Missy Warren McGee of District 102, which includes portions of Forrest and Lamar counties.
Juan Barnett, a Democrat who represents portions of Forrest, Jasper and Jones counties as state senator from District 34, also supports the legislative vote.
Republican state senators Joey Fillingane of District 41, which includes portions of Covington, Forrest, Jefferson Davis, Lamar and Smith counties, and Chris Johnson of District 45, which includes portions of Forrest and Perry counties, support a referendum that would allow voters the option to keep the current flag or adopt a new state flag.
Other Republican representatives, including Bill Pigott of District 99, Kent McCarty of District 101, Larry Byrd of District 104 and Jansen T. Owen of District 106 said they had “no comment” on the flag issue when questioned by Mississippi Today. Pigott represents portions of Lamar, Marion and Walthall counties, and McCarty represents Lamar County. Byrd represents Forrest County, and Owen represents portions of Lamar and Pearl River counties.
Two Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Chris McDaniel of District 42, which includes portions of Forrest and Jones counties, and Rep. Ken Morgan of District 100, which includes portions of Lamar and Marion counties, have said the current flag should remain.
In a Monday Facebook post, McDaniel said the “constant march of political correctness will destroy our institutions and history.”
Online petitions to change the flag have garnered more than 160,000 signatures, and, on Tuesday, one of the state’s leading business executives, CEO of Hancock Whitney John Hairston, said the flag’s continued presence harms the state’s ability to attract new business.
He called on legislators to change the flag instead of sending it to voters for a referendum.
“If the issue goes to the polls, it will be covered by every major network. Any business considering locating here will pause, not wanting to take the risk of locating here until resolution,” said Hairston in an interview with Mississippi Today. “What if the vote is a narrow win, or worse, an outright loss? What does that mean about our people? We have too much goodness in Mississippi to take the risk. I support the Legislature taking action now, and let’s get this decades-long issue put to bed.”
The Pine Belt business community is supportive of a flag change. The board of directors for the Area Development Partnership unanimously approved a statement in favor of changing the state flag, said President Chad Newell in an email on Tuesday. The organization, which has chamber of commerce and economic development divisions, has more than 825 member businesses that represent more than 20,000 employees.
“Greater Hattiesburg is a vibrant, diverse community with a pro-business operating environment,” said the statement. “Our state should strive to remove barriers that inhibit us from reaching our full potential, socially and economically.”
The Mississippi Baptist Convention Board, which governs the state’s largest religious denomination of more than 500,000 members, also called for the flag to be changed on Tuesday. Convention officials said the current flag is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus and that the debate is no longer a political one but a “moral issue and a gospel issue.”
Additionally, on Monday, Conference USA, the athletic conference that includes the University of Southern Mississippi in its membership, barred any championship games in the state until the flag is changed. The decision, made by the conference’s board of directors, comes on the heels of similar actions by the NCAA and the Southeastern Conference, of which the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University are members.
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said last week that it is “past time for change to be made to the flag of the State of Mississippi.”
“Students deserve an opportunity to learn and compete in environments that are inclusive and welcoming to all,” he added.
After the NCAA suspended championship events in the state on June 19, the leaders of Mississippi’s eight public universities issued a statement urging the adoption of a new flag.
“Several years ago, our universities recognized that the Mississippi state flag in its current form is divisive and chose to lower the flag on our campuses,” said the statement. “Today, we are committed to continuing to do our part to ensure Mississippi is united in its pursuit of a future that is free of racism and discrimination. Such a future must include a new flag.”
In a separate email to Southern Miss faculty and staff, university president Rodney Bennett said he “looks forward” to a time when the state flag “represents the full and rich diversity of Mississippi, a diversity that is reflected in our student-athletes, our student body, and the friends and fans of our athletic teams.”
Also on Monday, former student government leaders at the state’s public universities issued a statement to legislators urging them to “remove and replace the current flag that contains the symbol of the Confederacy.”
“Rather than bear the scars of past sins, our state flag should reflect that Mississippi’s best days are ahead. As lawmakers, you have the unique responsibility to decide how Mississippi meets this moment. This time, let’s get it right,” said the letter, which is signed by 39 former student body presidents.
Among the signees are former Southern Miss student government presidents, including Cameron Cloud, McKenna Stone Cloud, Caroline Bradley and Jeffrey George, who was elected to the Hattiesburg City Council as Ward 1 alderman in 2017.
In recent weeks, several local governments have voted to remove the flag from official property, including the Gulfport City Council on June 17 and the Tunica County Board of Supervisors on Monday. The state flag was removed from Hattiesburg city buildings in 2015 by order of then-Mayor Johnny DuPree.
The Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus, which has 53 members across the state House of Representatives and state Senate, has called for the Legislature to immediately “remove the current state flag and adopt a design that is inclusive.”
“We can vote while we are assembled and meeting at the Capitol,” said Angela Turner Ford, chair of the caucus. “Now is the time for the Mississippi Legislature to act and change the flag. For many, the current flag is a symbol and reminder of Mississippi’s dark past – a time of racism, hatred and bigotry.”
The current flag was adopted in February 1894. In April 2001, voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to replace the flag. However, that vote excluded the largest voting bloc in the state, which includes any Mississippian currently under the age of 37. These voters are known as millennials or members of generation Z, and according to a study from the Pew Research Center, they tend to be increasingly liberal.