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Mississippi Lawmakers Face Pressure To Change State's Official Flag


In Mississippi, lawmakers are under pressure to remove Confederate imagery from the state flag. For many, it's a constant reminder of a long history of violence and oppression. Here's Mississippi Public Broadcasting's Michael Guidry.

MICHAEL GUIDRY, BYLINE: The Mississippi Legislature adopted its current flag 30 years after the Civil War in 1894. But a lot has changed since then.


DERRICK SIMMONS: We need a flag that unites us and not divides us.

GUIDRY: Members of Mississippi's Legislative Black Caucus, including Senate Democratic leader Derrick Simmons, spoke on the steps of the state Capitol, where the flag flies above the manicured lawn. That flag, which includes a Confederate battle flag, is now at the center of what's become a national conversation.


SIMMONS: Now is the time to act, to remove and replace that Confederate flag.

GUIDRY: Weeks ago, when the death of George Floyd ignited protests across the nation against police violence and racism, it also reenergized the debate over Mississippi's flag. House Minority Leader Robert Johnson was a child during the civil rights movement.

ROBERT JOHNSON: A good friend of mine's father was blown up with a car bomb. And I watched people celebrate that, waving Confederate flags. I watched people wave the Confederate flag as a way of intimidating people, even in the most innocuous of circumstances.

GUIDRY: During much of the 20th century, white supremacists used the Confederate flag as a tool of intimidation and coercion. The Ku Klux Klan marched with it. The White Citizens' Councils displayed the Confederate flag crossed with a U.S. flag on stationery and in TV ads. This imagery, according to history professor Stephanie Rolph of Millsaps College, wants to normalize the association of white exceptionalism with the American experience.

STEPHANIE ROLPH: They are reiterating what they believe to be a fact, which is that racism or the belief in white supremacy is not unique to the Deep South. They believe that it's endemic to the American system.

GUIDRY: Pressure is mounting on the legislature to make a change. But some, like Republican Rep. Tim Ladner, say it should be the people, not lawmakers, who decide whether to change the flag.

TIM LADNER: I tell people all the time; this is not my vote. It belongs to the people in my district.

GUIDRY: In fact, in 2001, nearly two-thirds of Mississippi voters rejected updating the flag. Collegiate athletics are adding their voice. This month, the NCAA said it will prohibit all postseason competition in states that display the Confederate emblem. Yesterday, coaches and administrators from Mississippi's eight public universities came to the Capitol with a unified message. John Cohen is athletics director at Mississippi State University.


JOHN COHEN: This is bigger than athletics. This is a moment in time where history needs to be made. And we need to be on the right side of history.

GUIDRY: The Legislative Black Caucus wants its colleagues to act now to avoid another divisive public vote. Lawmakers plan to continue their discussions into the weekend before the legislature wraps up next week. For NPR News, I'm Michael Guidry in Jackson, Miss. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.