Sixty-four percent of voters in Mississippi who bothered to go to the polls in 2001 chose to keep the current state flag, Confederate emblem and all, in that special election. Since then the flag and its symbolism have continually been debated, often further perpetuating the stereotypes Mississippi political and business leaders combat on a daily basis.
The 2001 non-binding state referendum to change the flag was voted on by approximately 750,000 Mississippians. When you compare that number to the 977,000 voters who just six months prior voted in the 2000 presidential election or the 1.3 million voters who went to the polls in the 2012 presidential election it proves that there are hundreds of thousands of Mississippians who for whatever reason did not choose to vote on the state flag in April 2001.
Everyone knows special elections do not draw high voter turnout. Heck, that’s why some elected officials from City Hall to the Capitol push for special election referendums on tax/bond issues or controversial topics in the first place. But the truth is that the more who vote and can be encouraged to do so the better our state will be long-term.
It’s only through open dialogue do we as neighbors find consensus and understanding that surpasses Election Day. As such, a public discussion on our Mississippi state flag in terms of a design that best represents our citizens is necessary. Whether the current flag we have best represents our citizens or not is up for debate.
Some say it’s been voted on, accept it. Much has changed in 15 years. First, the state has moved from Democrat legislative majorities to Republican legislative majorities and the statewide officers have flipped almost completely on party lines. Dismissing a new generation of voters who have come of age and sticking our heads in the sand on issues a significant portion of our state finds troubling isn’t the way to exhibit leadership or make inroads across cultural divides. That’s what Democrats did while they held legislative majorities in this state and you can see where that’s gotten them politically and us as a whole in education, infrastructure and the like.
Mississippi Republicans should not shy away from this discussion as the new majority party. Any tangible backlash will likely come in the form of a heated, even nasty exchange, but it’s necessary and worth the time and effort.
The Legislature, under the even handed leadership of Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, should lead this discussion as our elected representatives and it should be done this session. The right course of action is to take an up or down vote in the state House and Senate on whether to change the flag or punt it to the 2016 presidential ballot for the public to decide.
Allowing such an issue to fester and continuously stir controversy damages our state’s image and causes unnecessary division among lawmakers, public entities, and citizens.
If it is punted to the public for a vote, however, the Republican leadership must be prepared for the hateful ads and divisive rhetoric that is surely to come from both in state and out of state entities seeking a foothold and voice in the debate. It will not be pretty, and it won’t negatively effect Democrats; it will only color the Republican Party, and not in a good way.
Governing isn’t easy. We’ve come a long way from when Ronnie Musgrove tried to outsource this issue to a commission. But Mississippi Republicans asked voters for the ball to be put in their hands. Now it is.
If the flag is not addressed, the inaction of the Legislature will only allow a festering issue to get worse.
By the way, did you know there is a Mississippi state flag pledge? It’s codified in state law as follows:
“I salute the flag of Mississippi and the sovereign state for which it stands with pride in her history and achievements and with confidence in her future under the guidance of Almighty God.” – Mississippi Code Section 37-13-7
The law even states that, “The pledge of allegiance to the Mississippi flag shall be taught in the public schools of this state, along with the pledge of allegiance to the United States flag.”