House passes first step to change state flag

The House of Representatives on Saturday began the legislative process to remove the Mississippi state flag, which features the Confederate battle emblem.

The House Rules committee passed a resolution on Saturday afternoon that would suspend the chamber’s rules so that lawmakers can consider a bill that would change or remove the flag. Immediately afterwards, it went to the floor for a vote and passed 85-35. All Democrats and both independents voted for the change, and 38 Republicans voted for the proposal compared to the 35 no votes in the caucus.

“The eyes of the state, the nation and indeed the world are on us and what we do today,” said House Speaker Pro Tem Jason White, R-West, who presented the resolution to the floor. “Whether we like it or not the Confederate emblem on our state flag is viewed by many as a symbol of hate. There is no getting around that fact.”

The resolution states a commission would be created to redesign the state flag. The commission would recommend a new design by Sept. 14 and voters would vote on it a special election on Nov. 3.

“I think it was a historic moment in our state and it was the right thing to do,” said House Speaker Philip Gunn, who in the summer of 2015 surprised his Republican House majority caucus when he announced his support for changing the flag.

“The bottom line is the image of our state hangs in the balance,” Gunn said. “We talk about the business impact, the economic impact. All those things are real, but the bottom line is this is just the right thing to do.”

The design “would not include the Confederate battle flag but shall include the words “In God We Trust.”” Should voters reject that design, the commission would present a new option during the 2021 legislative session, according to the resolution.

We cannot carry the banner for freedom in one hand and the banner of hate in another,” White said. “It does not work that way.”

Only one lawmaker — Rep. Jeffrey Guice, R-Ocean Springs — attempted to add an amendment to the resolution to take the issue to the ballot for a statewide referendum rather than the Legislature taking action to remove the flag.

“If people don’t get a chance to vote on this we will see (citizen-sponsored) referendum after referendum,” Guice said.

The amendment failed on a loud voice vote.

Before the resolution went to a vote the discussion was not contentious — members listened attentively and some even recorded on their phones. Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, spoke about how he was on the flag commission for the 2001 referendum, and how that turned out, “not as an exploration of ideas, but an expression of hurt and hatred and divisiveness and racial discord.”

“Some of you when you come in here don’t notice that flag up in the corner,” Blackmon said. “There’s some of us who notice it every time we walk in here and it is not a good feeling … It ought to be something that fills us with a sense of pride, so we know it’s about us, not just some of us.”

Prior to the vote, sources close to House leadership said if the rules suspension passes, they will file and pass a bill that would immediately remove the state flag.

The resolution required a two-thirds majority (82 out of 122 members) of the House. It was passed with immediate release, meaning it can now go to the Senate committee and then the Senate chamber, where it also requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate (35 out of 52 members).

If both the House and Senate approve the suspension resolution, lawmakers can take up an actual bill that would remove or replace the state flag. Those considerations would require just a simple majority in both chambers to pass (62 of 122 House members, 27 of 52 Senate members).

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Mississippi Today
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