The Mississippi Economic Council unveiled a bicentennial banner Wednesday in front of an audience of the state’s most powerful business and political leaders.
Staffers for the MEC, which serves as the state’s chamber of commerce, unfurled the banner to long applause on stage at the group’s annual Hobnob event. The banner features the state seal on three horizontal red, white and blue bars. The left side of the flag reads, “Established 1817” and on the right “2017 Bicentennial.”
In any other state, the unveiling might not make headlines. But in Mississippi – the lone state that has not removed the Confederate battle flag emblem from its official state flag – it is met with great attention. Before the flag was even walked off the stage after the announcement, a handful of business leaders near the stage murmured about whether the banner could ultimately replace the state flag.
The MEC led efforts to remove the Confederate emblem from the state flag in 2001, when Mississippians voted almost 2-to-1 to keep the current state flag in place. During Wednesday’s announcement, MEC President Blake Wilson carefully pointed out, “This is a banner, not a flag.”
After the event, Wilson said the intention of creating the bicentennial banner was not to replace the current state flag, though it could bring about discussion of potential changes.
“You’ve got a brand that disenfranchises 37 percent of your population (who are African Americans), so why would you use that brand?” Wilson said. “It’s not a brand that brings people together. … We’re not pushing or suggesting this is an alternative flag. But what we’re saying is this might be a way to celebrate one banner. Where it goes after that, what discussion that helps stimulate, what that helps gravitate to, we’ll just have to see what people have to say.”
Conceptualizing and designing the banner has been in the works since early summer, Wilson said. Gov. Phil Bryant, after his speech at the Neshoba County Fair in July, told Mississippi Today the idea was being worked on. Bryant suggested the banner could fly above Jackson’s Civil Rights Museum, slated to open in 2017.
“People will start acclimating themselves to it (after we unveil it),” Bryant said in July. “And since it’s a banner, state agencies can fly it, city halls can fly it, you know like the POW things you see. It’s a banner.”
Allan Hammons, who owns a marketing firm in Greenwood, designed the banner, Wilson said. MEC ordered about 200 banners in different sizes, and they have begun giving them to businesses across the state. In the next few weeks, MEC will reach out to other businesses around the state to determine the level of interest.
Wilson said he told Bryant of the idea over the summer, but MEC has not worked with the governor’s office on the banner design or implementation.
The governor, who did not immediately respond to questions about the banner Wednesday, has long said he believes the flag issue should go back to the ballot for Mississippians to decide.
All but one of the state’s eight public universities, Delta State University, have removed the flag from their campuses. Numerous city and town halls across the state, as well as public schools, have done the same.
During the 2016 legislative session, 19 bills that dealt with the state flag died in committee before making it to the floors for votes.
House Speaker Philip Gunn, the most prominent current politician to publicly oppose the state flag, was not immediately available for comment about the banner Wednesday. Gunn’s spokeswoman, Meg Annison, said that the speaker stands by his previous statements, offering support to change the state flag.
“I have not wavered in my viewpoint that we need a different flag to represent Mississippi,” Gunn said in February. “I have spoken with many House members both individually and collectively and have tried to convince them to adopt my view. … The flag is going to change. We can deal with it now or leave it for future generations to address. I believe our state needs to address it now.”
Wilson said he purposefully chose three young MEC staffers to unfurl the flag on stage for Wednesday’s announcement, as “they’re the next generation.” He said he hears complaints from businesses in Mississippi “all the time” regarding the current state flag, and that his hope is the flag will change soon.
“It’s a problem, particularly for multi-state employers because some of them have pretty strong anti-discrimination policies and about symbols and all that,” Wilson said. “Hopefully, over time, we can get our arms around it and find a way. We’re going to participate in any discussion that comes along, but this is not being promoted in any way as an alternative to the flag. But it may create a discussion that others may come up with their design that shows there’s other ways of approaching it.”