Bid to Drop Confederate Symbol From Mississippi Flag Goes to Voters

In a 42-10 vote that split along racial lines, the Senate sent Gov. Ronnie Musgrove a bill Thursday to hold a statewide referendum April 17 on whether to remove the Confederate symbol from Mississippi's flag.

The House approved the bill on Tuesday. Musgrove, a Democrat, has said he will sign it.

Voters would choose between the current 1894 flag and a design that replaces the Confederate battle emblem with a circle of 20 stars to signify Mississippi's admission as the 20th state.

Some see the old flag as a reminder of slavery and racial oppression. Supporters of the flag say it represents their Southern heritage.

A referendum was seen by some as a way of taking the political heat off the Legislature by putting the decision in the voters' hands. Some supporters of the flag also argued that in the privacy of the voting booth, many people would feel free to vote for the 1894 banner.

All 10 black senators voted against the referendum bill because it says that if a new flag is chosen, the 1894 one would be designated as an "historic" banner. Sen. Robert Johnson said that means the 1894 flag could still be flown at city halls or county buildings.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Gordon, who is white, said the historic designation means the 1894 flag could still be flown in places such as Civil War battle sites.

Sen. Johnnie Walls, who is black, said the flag affects how the rest of the world sees Mississippi.

"They don't think about the Civil War when they see that," Walls said. "They think about what happened during the civil rights era. Mississippi is branded by that."

The question of the flag's design came to the fore after the state Supreme Court ruled last May that Mississippi doesn't actually have an official flag because when laws were updated in 1906, sections dealing with the flag weren't included.

Georgia is the only other state with the Confederate emblem in its flag.

Musgrove last year created a commission of business and political leaders to make a recommendation on the flag design after South Carolina was hit with a boycott over that state's flying of the Confederate flag. The commission recommended a referendum.

"Where I go, people say to me that they want to vote," Gordon said. "This is just too much for us to decide. When a majority of the people speak, then I think we can move on to bigger and better things in this state."