Two of Mississippi's top elected Republicans proposed Wednesday that the Confederate battle emblem be replaced on the state flag with the words “In God We Trust," seeking a path toward unity in their state amid the backdrop of national protests over racial injustice.
Mississippi has the only state flag that includes the Confederate battle emblem — a red field topped by a blue X with 13 white stars. White supremacists in the Legislature chose the design in 1894 as backlash for the political power African Americans gained during Reconstruction after the Civil War.
Mississippi voters chose to keep the flag in a 2001 statewide election, but the design has remained contentious. Elsewhere in the country, debate has sharpened as Confederate monuments and statues recalling past slavery have been toppled by protesters or deliberately removed by authorities amid a groundswell against racial inequities.
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Attorney General Lynn Fitch issued separate statements Wednesday about the flag. Hosemann said a new flag would help future generations.
“In my mind, our flag should bear the Seal of the Great State of Mississippi and state ‘In God We Trust,’” Hosemann said. “ I am open to bringing all citizens together to determine a banner for our future.”
Fitch said Wednesday that adding “In God We Trust” to the state flag would “reflect the love, compassion and conviction of our people” and would be "the perfect way to demonstrate who we are to all.”
Separately, Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves has said that if the flag is going to be redesigned, any changes should follow from the will of the people in a statewide election.
Legislative Black Caucus members say lawmakers should remove the Confederate emblem because another statewide flag vote would be bitter.
“The emotional distress that the current flag perpetuates on people of color extends throughout the United States, casting us and having people to claim that we are backwater and retrograde,” said the caucus chairwoman, Democratic Sen. Angela Turner Ford of West Point.
Another Republican statewide elected official, Auditor Shad White, said Mississippi needs a flag “that is more unifying than the one we have now.”
“If there were a vote to remove the Confederate imagery from our flag, I would vote to remove it,” White said Wednesday.
Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville is among those saying Mississippi should keep its flag and people should resist efforts to remove historical monuments.
“Whether you acknowledge it or not, the American Left is waging war against us,” McDaniel said Tuesday on Facebook. “They consider the founding to be illegitimate, our history to be tainted, and our republic as inherently evil. They will not stop.”
In a newspaper ad funded by the state chamber of commerce, dozens of business executives said Wednesday that the Confederate battle emblem needs to be removed from Mississippi’s flag because it “perpetuates negative stereotypes of our state.”
The chamber, called the Mississippi Economic Council, said for years that Mississippi should change its flag. The group said a new flag without Confederate images would boost economic opportunities and improve the quality of life.
“The current flag is harmful to Mississippi’s image and reputation for those outside our state and is hurtful to many Mississippians,” the group said in the ad published in the Clarion Ledger.
Walmart announced Tuesday that it would stop displaying the Mississippi flag because of the Confederate emblem. Also Tuesday, the large and influential Mississippi Baptist Convention said lawmakers have a moral obligation to remove the Confederate image from the state flag because many people are “hurt and shamed” by it.
At a Black Lives Matter rally June 6 in Jackson, thousands of people cheered when an organizer said Mississippi should get rid of Confederate images.
Legislators are in the final days of their annual session, and some are trying to build a bipartisan coalition to change the flag. But they face a tough challenge this late in the session after deadlines for key legislation have passed, requiring a two-thirds majority of the House and Senate.
Some lawmakers want to keep the flag as it has been since 1894. Some say the issue should be decided in a statewide election.
All of Mississippi’s public universities stopped flying the state flag years ago because of the Confederate symbol. Several cities and counties have also removed it from public property, some long ago and some recently.
Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.