McCOMB, Miss. (AP) — Weeks after the June massacre of nine black worshippers in a Charleston church, South Carolina lawmakers slogged through an emotional debate before voting to remove a Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds in Columbia. Critics called for Mississippi to step up next and rip the rebel emblem from its state flag.
While South Carolina acted, Mississippi dithered.
Enmeshed in their own election-year politics and preferring to avoid the sticky subject of Old South symbolism, Mississippi's top elected officials have largely ignored the state flag that has flown since 1894, with the Confederate battle emblem in the upper left corner — a blue X with 13 white stars, over a red field.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant is seeking a second term in the Nov. 3 election, and said he wouldn't call Mississippi legislators into special session this year to debate the flag. They ended their regular session in early April, more than two months before what police said was a racially motivated attack at Emmanuel African American Episcopal Church in Charleston. The white man charged in the slayings had previously posed for photos with the Confederate battle flag.
"If the (Mississippi) Legislature had been in session at the time the Mother Emmanuel tragedy happened, I think the momentum and the pressure to remove the symbol at that time would have carried the day," said Susan Glisson, director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. "The emotion and the shock of that was very powerful. ... It's easy for emotions to subside."
A few politicians called for change, including, Philip Gunn, Mississippi's first Republican House speaker since Reconstruction. Gunn is a leader in his local Baptist church, and said faith caused him to see the flag as "a point of offense that needs to be removed." Flag supporters, including some Sons of Confederate Veterans, responded with yard signs and bumper stickers emblazoned with "Keep the Flag. Change the Speaker."
Several Mississippi cities and counties that have stopped flying the state flag in the past four months, citing it as a racially divisive symbol in a state where nearly 38 percent of the 2.9 million residents are African-American. A Jackson resident is starting a petition drive to put a change-the-flag initiative on the statewide ballot, and flag supporters hope to start their own keep-the-flag initiative — but the earliest either proposal could go to voters is in 2018. Many are hoping for some sort of resolution to the public debate before then.
Bryant and Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves are challenged by Democrats running low-budget campaigns, and both incumbents say if the flag design is to be reconsidered, it should be done by a statewide vote, and not by legislators. Both Democrats are calling for change.
"I've never had a company say, 'We can't come to Mississippi because of the flag,'" Bryant said.
Robert Gray, a truck driver who won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination after not even voting for himself, said the Confederate emblem on the state flag is like a sign for people to stay away.
"If you have 50 bottles of wine and you take a warning label and put it on one of the bottles, which one could people go to first? They're not going to go to the bottle with the warning label on it, at all," Gray said.
Tim Johnson, a former state senator who switched from Republican to Democrat to run for lieutenant governor, said he voted to keep the Confederate emblem in 2001 but now thinks it should be removed: "You don't hold onto something that's holding you back."
Lt. Gov. Reeves, like Bryant, said the flag has never been an obstacle to job creation.
"The people of Mississippi voted, overwhelmingly, in 2001 to keep our state flag as it currently exists. And I believe the only way the flag should be changed is if the people of our state decide to change it," Reeves said.
The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the flag, while widely used, had not been enshrined in state law since code books were updated in 1906. A flag commission and held several public hearings that devolved into shouting matches in the fall of 2000. After that, legislators put the matter to a statewide vote in April 2001, with two choices: the 1894 flag and an alternative that would have replaced the rebel emblem with circles of stars to represent Mississippi as the 20th state. By a nearly 2-to-1 margin, voters kept the old flag.
Fourteen years later, some Mississippi residents still embrace the Confederate-themed banner.
"I think it should stay the same. It's part of our heritage," said Cynthia Moak, a 33-year-old white homemaker in the southern Mississippi city of McComb.
Others say it's beyond time to find a unifying flag.
"This is a new era now. That flag kind of reminds us of the past," said Myrtle Alexander, 45, of McComb, who is black and works as a district manager for a food company.
McComb, a small city about 80 miles south of Jackson, has a significant civil-rights history. For much of the 1950s and '60s, McComb was controlled by Ku Klux Klan and earned a reputation as a bombing capital because of violent resistance to black voting rights and integration. Alexander said her parents remained in McComb through those times, but, "it was very hard for them."
The Mississippi flag still flutters outside McComb City Hall.
"Whenever you see that flag," Alexander said, "it kind of brings back bad memories."
Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.