JACKSON (AP) — The Confederate battle emblem on the Mississippi flag is an issue that won't die, even when legislative leaders say firmly that there's no consensus to either change the banner or to force it to be flown in public places where it has disappeared.
The persistence of the fight has been abundantly clear the past couple of weeks in the state House of Representatives.
Republican Rep. William Shirley of Quitman tried to amend several bills to put financial pressure on the eight public universities to display the flag. All have furled it because of the Confederate emblem that critics see as racist.
Supporters say the flag represents history. Shirley took part in a 2016 rally in support of the current flag, but said his effort to make universities fly the banner was not specifically about the rebel design.
"Whatever it is — pink, polka-dotted elephants, I don't care — but if they are getting tax money they should fly the flag of the state," he said.
After several unsuccessful efforts, Shirley stood at the front of the House chamber last Wednesday and silently waved two tiny flags — one, the state banner; the other, a plain white flag. He would not explain that action, but many interpreted it as a sign of at least temporary surrender.
The next day, the chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus, Democratic Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes of Gulfport, stood in the same spot and said Shirley should have apologized for disrupting the work of the House over a divisive symbol. Instead, she said he had "laughed and cooed" with other representatives.
"This flag remains a constant reminder of not just the past hate, but the current hate that continues to fester in this state amongst our residents and throughout this chamber," Williams-Barnes said.
Mississippi is the last state with a flag that prominently features the Confederate battle emblem, years after Georgia redesigned its banner.
Mississippi has used the flag since 1894, but the state Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the flag, while widely displayed, had lacked official status since 1906, when state law books were updated and the flag design was not included. After public hearings degenerated into shouting matches between flag supporters and opponents in the fall of 2000, legislators put the design question on a statewide ballot in 2001, and voters reaffirmed it.
Debate over the public display of Confederate symbols intensified after the June 2015 slaying of nine black worshippers in a church in a Charleston, South Carolina, by an avowed white supremacist who had posed for photos with the Confederate battle flag. Soon after the massacre, South Carolina lawmakers removed a Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds. Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn was among the Mississippi political leaders who said this state needs to change its flag.
Williams-Barnes said she was told in 2016 that she should hold on and not make an issue about the flag because legislative leaders had a plan.
"So, I trusted. And I waited. And I waited," she said last week. "And now, we are approaching the end of this legislative session and every flag bill is either buried or in a procession headed to the cemetery. ... I am sick to my core of this flag and what it's doing to my state. It's not only about race. It's about progression of our state. It's about economic development in our state. It's about tourism in our state. It's about growth of our state. It's about making Mississippi whole again."
Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.