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What would it take for Mississippi to change its state flag?

The Mississippi state flag is unfurled against the front of the Governor's Mansion in Jackson in 2015.
The Mississippi state flag is unfurled against the front of the Governor's Mansion in Jackson in 2015. AP File

One year ago Friday, Dylann Roof walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, S.C., sat through Bible study, then shot and killed nine people.

The next day, South Carolina and the nation mourned for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Depayne Middleton Doctor, the Rev. Daniel Simmons and Myra Thompson.

Less than a month later, on July 10, the Confederate flag -- which Roof, an avowed white supremacist, had posed proudly with in photos -- was removed from South Carolina statehouse grounds.

After six months, New Orleans voted to remove Confederate monuments from city property.

But a year later, experts are trying to explain why Mississippi has dug in and taken no action on the last remaining state flag in the country containing the Confederate battle emblem. Nor have any communities in South Mississippi, considered the most liberal part of the state, taken any action.

Advocates on both sides of the flag issue on the Coast said they are continuing to work on building support before a potential vote on the state flag but that wouldn't be for two years.

So what gives?

"If I had that answer I could get elected president," said University of Southern Mississippi professor Allan McBride, director of the political science graduate program. "The only thing I can point to is the political culture of the state and the state legislators. Certainly South Carolina is known as one of the most conservative states, politically, in the nation. Louisiana is not much different than us, politically. Both have taken steps."

Legislative, popular support for current flag

It may be an issue of simple geography. With the shooting happening in their own state, South Carolina legislators may have been moved -- either by a personal change of heart or re-election concerns -- to take action. In New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu pushed hard for change.

Mississippi has seen its leaders push in the opposite direction.

"It's difficult to sort out," McBride said. "There are so many factors involved. In just comparing Louisiana and Mississippi, it comes down to leadership. We don't have leadership that will go out on a limb."

If Mississippi's leadership opts against changing the flag legislatively -- and responses from statewide elected officials have ranged from tepid to strong support of the current design -- there's always the possibility of another popular vote.

The last vote, in 2001, showed strong popular support of the current design.

Advocates on both sides of the issue said they are optimistic about the results of a potential ballot initiative.

"If it was to go up for a vote again, I think we would have the same result," said Wallace Mason, a member of the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and one of the leaders working on the Coast toward Initiative 58, a referendum on a constitutional amendment to keep the current flag design.

"It's been our state flag since 1894. The flag means a lot to people. It's gone through a lot of history in Mississippi and it stands for the history of Mississippi. It doesn't stand for any issues that have been brought up against it."

When reached by phone Wednesday, Mason was about to make arrangements to collect signatures in support of Initiative 58 at a Hancock County event. He said he had been collecting signatures the previous weekend as well. And though he didn't have exact numbers, things were going well, he said.

"Everybody out there I've come across has been wanting to sign the petition," he said. "People out there are looking to sign it, we just have to be out at enough places."

Opponents still optimistic

Lea Campbell is a Coast leader with the group One Mississippi Flag for All, which is collecting signatures for Initiative 55, a ballot referendum to remove the Confederate battle emblem. She said momentum is on the side of change.

"Generally the response has been quite positive," she said. "I think that the momentum for support for changing the flag is growing. I think people are starting to realize that it is harmful to the perception of what those outside of Mississippi think of Mississippi; harmful to economic development; and harmful to racial progress and reconciliation."

She and other group members have been at rallies and community events. There was a rally in Bay St. Louis and a larger one on Flag Day in front of the state capitol. They've also built a presence on social media.

The group's view is the opposite of Wallace's.

"It's an undeniable fact that the symbol, the Confederate battle-flag emblem, is a symbol of hate," she said. "With Mississippi's history of discrimination and violence against the African-American population, it's unacceptable."

 

Flag, Confederate symbols, remain controversial

The national conversation over Confederate symbols has somewhat receded.

But in the months following the Charleston shooting, there was a flurry of activity in South Mississippi.

Ole Miss and the University of Southern Mississippi removed the flag from their campuses. Mississippi State University opted to keep flying it. NAACP representatives asked all three southern counties to remove the flag from public property. Jackson County voted to continue flying the state flag. Harrison and Hancock counties did not take a vote. Flag-change advocates have said asking city leaders on the Coast to consider taking down the flag is next on their radar.

So the controversy hasn't completely died down. This month, U.S. House Republicans blocked an amendment from U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, that would ban Confederate imagery from the House side of the Capitol complex. The Washington National Cathedral said it would remove images of the Confederate battle flag from its stained-glass windows and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, said she supported removing the battle flag from the chapel at The Citadel and sending it to a museum.

On Tuesday, the Southern Baptist Convention urged Christians to stop displaying the Confederate battle flag.

Whether to change the flag in Mississippi will likely come down to a popular vote. But even if the majority of Mississippians are theoretically in favor of changing the flag -- and that's still a big if -- a popular vote doesn't always reflect public opinion, McBride said.

The groups most likely to vote in favor of changing, young and minority people, tend to have higher turnout in presidential election years. Older people, white people and Republicans tend to turn out more in off years.

If either Initiative 55 or Initiative 58 collects enough signatures to be on a ballot, it would be in 2018, which is not a presidential election year.

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