October 25, 2020

Will Mississippi touch the ‘third rail’ state flag issue this year?

Will this be the year that Mississippi lawmakers consider changing the official state flag to remove the Confederate Battle flag emblem?

Political watchers think a change from the Legislature is unlikely, but that hasn’t stopped a myriad of bills being introduced (pro and con for the existing state flag) and speculation and hope on both sides of the issue that something will happen this year.

While much discussion has been made over the years about what to do with the state’s controversial official flag the Legislature has not taken up the matter.

Many lawmakers simply point to the state’s ballot referendum held in 2001 as proof that residents don’t want to change the flag. Given two choices the existing flag design and a single alternative, more than 64 percent of Mississippians voted to stick with the current design.

Mississippi is the only state in the country whose flag still bears Confederate symbolism. As such the state has drawn the ire of many who suggest the flag reflects poorly on the state. Some groups have refused to bring meetings or conventions to Mississippi to avoid the potential association with the Confederate emblem.

Several bills have been introduced in the Legislature that involve the state flag.

Four bills aim at establishing a redesign commission:

  • House Bill 15, filed by Rep. Debra Gibbs, would establish a commission to redesign the flag and offer a design recommendation to the governor, lieutenant governor and house speaker by Jan. 1, 2020.
  • House Bill 218, filed by Rep. Orlando Paden, would create a commission that would then solicit designs from public universities or junior colleges for consideration.
  • House Bill 248, filed by Rep. John Hines Sr., would have a commission develop, design and report a new design to the governor and legislature by Jan. 1, 2020.
  • House Bill 313, filed by Rep. Bryant Clark, would establish a commission to create two options for the legislature to choose from during the 2020 session.

Hines filed a second bill, House Bill 433, that would put the decision on whether to change the flag to the voters with a statewide special election in November 2019. Under Hines’ bill if a majority of voters sought to remove the Confederate symbolism, the new design would then be decided upon by a commission that would be created.

Other bills simply aim to mandate a specific design:

  • House Bill 18, sponsored by Rep. David Baria presented a design featuring a large blue star, 19 smaller stars and red and white panels.
  • House Bill 561, filed by Rep. Kathy Sykes, would change the flag to have a large blue star on a white field encircled by 19 similar stars and flanked by red bands. The Washington Post reported Sykes filed the bill on behalf of Laurin Stennis. Stennis’ father served in the state Legislature and her grandfather was a longtime member of the U.S. Senate representing Mississippi.
  • House Bill 372, filed by Rep. Greg Snowden, proposes having two official state flags, including the current flag with the Confederate Battle flag. Snowden would call on the state’s first state flag, flown from 1861 until 1894, to serve as the second official state flag. It featured a magnolia tree in the center, a blue square with a white star in the upper left corner and a red bar along the right edge.

Other moves aim to just mandate the use (or none use) of the flag – including the current design:

  • House Bill 165, filed by Rep. William Shirley, aims to require all state, county and municipality offices to display the official flag. The bill would include public colleges and universities, many of which have made the decision in recent years to not fly the state flag. Shirley’s bill would impose a $2,500 fine per day for agencies that intentionally and willfully fail to fly the flag.
  • House Bill 466, also filed by Shirley, is similar to HB 165, but aims directly at public colleges and universities and would withhold all state funding to institutions that do not display the state flag.
  • House Bill 857, filed by Rep. Dana Criswell, would require state institutions of higher learning to display the state flag, but offers no penalty for violators.
  • House Bill 228, filed by Rep. Kabir Karriem, aims to prohibit the display of the current state flag at any state building until the design is changes to remove the Confederate Battle Flag emblem.
  • House Bill 780, sponsored by Reps. Steve Hopkins, Chris Brown and Dana Criswell, would explicitly protect the rights of Mississippians to possess and peacefully display the official state flag.
  • Senate Bill 2190, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Seymour, would require all government agencies that receive state funds to fly the state flag. It would impose a penalty of having state funds withheld. Further the bill would local governments or homeowners associations from prohibiting the display of the flag.