There is really nothing new to the arguments for why Mississippi should change its state flag from what advocates were saying 19 years ago, when the idea was soundly trounced in a statewide referendum.
What is new is the much larger number of organizations and individuals that have either been won over to the argument or who have summoned the courage to speak out against the Confederate-themed flag and the harm it does to race relations and to Mississippi’s image in the world.
The coalition has gotten so large and so impressive — encompassing business groups, most religious denominations, all of the public institutions of higher learning, including their influential athletic departments, plus hundreds of prominent leaders within Mississippi’ s private sector — that those in public office are taking more notice now than they have ever before.
This week alone, four Republican statewide officials in this GOP-dominated state — Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, Attorney General Lynn Fitch, Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney and State Auditor Shad White — endorsed a change, which has been long-backed by the majority of Democrats and a few others within the GOP.
Former Gov. Phil Bryant, who did not champion a new flag during his eight years as governor and four years before that as lieutenant governor, has come out now in favor of one. Even Gov. Tate Reeves, considered a main obstacle to a new flag, has softened his stance.
A couple of weeks ago, when the flag issue was starting to seriously resurface in private discussions within the Legislature, Reeves criticized the movement, saying if the flag is to be changed, it should not be the product of “some backroom deal by a bunch of politicians in Jackson.” Now he says that if the Legislature can summon the two-thirds majority it will take to bring the issue to a vote in the current session, he might not veto what lawmakers do.
Although Reeves and some other conservatives still say the matter needs to be decided in a referendum, just as it was in 2001, there aren’t many who relish repeating that experience. They realize that it would be a nasty campaign, that there would be a lot of collateral damage in the process, and that Mississippi would not be the beneficiary of any good publicity leading up to the vote.
They also fear that putting the highly emotional and racially charged question to a popular vote, or even doing nothing again this year, could make Mississippi a magnet for those protesting in the country over racial inequities — and the potential for such protests to spill over into violence.
Even though the change is inevitable, no one expected it to happen this year (see the editorial on this page just three days ago). Even with this summer’s cascading momentum for mothballing Confederate symbols across the South, few predicted that Mississippi’s slow-to-change Legislature would take action.
However, the possibility is increasing that the Legislature will take action soon.
It is a good sign that lawmakers, who were initially expected to wind up business Friday, decided to work through the weekend and possibly into next week, trying to see if the final few votes reportedly needed for passage can be won over.
The holdouts have been given plenty of cover — from the business, religious and athletic worlds — to do the right thing and distance this state from a symbol that has come to be associated mostly with Mississippi at its worst: from slavery to segregation to, in more modern times, racial insensitivity.
They can do the right thing now or do it later. History will be kinder to them if they do it now.