Bicentennial banner picking up support

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The Mississippi Economic Council's bicentennial banner flies at the Dogwood branch of BancorpSouth.

Gabriel Austin, Mississippi Today

The Mississippi Economic Council’s bicentennial banner flies at the Dogwood branch of BancorpSouth.

Flying a bicentennial banner in place of the current state flag is gaining popularity among Mississippi businesses, communities and universities.

Unveiled by the Mississippi Economic Council in October, the banner already is being flown or is planned to be flown in several locations:

• The Tupelo City Council voted unanimously this week to fly the bicentennial banner instead of the state flag in front of its new police headquarters opening later this month.

• The University of Mississippi will fly the bicentennial banner on its Oxford campus from at least Dec. 9, 2016, to Dec. 10, 2017, the official bicentennial date.

• Delta State University is flying the bicentennial banner at its main entrance in Cleveland after lowering the state flag in early November.

• Tupelo-based BancorpSouth is flying the banner at multiple Mississippi branch locations.

Speaker of the Mississippi House Philip Gunn

Gil Ford Photography

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton

“This clearly shows that there is a desire among a growing number of Mississippians and entities to explore other options than the current state flag,” House Speaker Philip Gunn said in a statement. “The statement I made before is the same way I feel today. I want to find a solution that represents all Mississippians.”

Mississippi’s state flag is the only official state emblem in the nation that displays the Confederate battle flag.

The bicentennial 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.” Mississippi is the last state in the nation to fly the Confederate battle flag in an official capacity.

In Tupelo this week, council members voted unanimously to fly the bicentennial banner at the new police headquarters. Some council members resisted the idea of flying the current state flag.

“I don’t feel I can ever support the state flag going up in Tupelo because it is divisive and insulting to me as a citizen,” Tupelo Councilwoman Nettie Davis told the Daily Journal. “It does not represent all the people of this state or community.”

Ole Miss removed the state flag from campus in 2015, after a student-led campaign that saw the university administration sponsor removing the flag and placing it in university archives.

Spokesman Jon Scott said the university will begin flying the bicentennial banner next week to commemorate the anniversary of the state entering the union. The university will also host events celebrating the bicentennial, he said.

BancorpSouth, a $14 billion publicly traded regional bank with 239 locations in Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas, first lowered the state flag in 2015. Company spokesman Randy Burchfield said this week the bank is flying the bicentennial banner at multiple branch locations around the state.

“We are flying the state’s bicentennial banner in celebration of the state’s upcoming 200th anniversary of statehood, along with the American flag,” Burchfield said.

MEC staffers unfurl a Mississippi bicentennial banner.

Adam Ganucheau | Mississippi Today

MEC staffers unfurl a Mississippi bicentennial banner.

When the banner was unveiled, MEC President Blake Wilson was clear to point out: “This is a banner, not a flag.” But afterward, he told Mississippi Today that the banner might spur conversations about other alternatives to the current state flag.

“You’ve got a brand that disenfranchises 37 percent of your population (who are African Americans), so why would you use that brand?” Wilson asked. “It’s not a brand that brings people together.”

Wilson added: “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.”

Gov. Phil Bryant, after his speech at the Neshoba County Fair in July, first told Mississippi Today of the bicentennial banner. Bryant suggested the banner could fly above the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, slated to open in 2017 in Jackson.

“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.”

Bryant’s office did not respond to questions this week about the banner gaining wider acceptance.

Mississippi Today asked Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who has said Mississippi voters should decide whether to change the state flag, whether he envisioned the banner flying alongside the state flag at state agencies.

“I am not aware of any conversations among state leadership regarding banners not sanctioned by the laws of the State of Mississippi flying on state property,” Reeves’ spokeswoman Laura Hipp said in a statement. “Obviously, we would have to research the legal ramifications of state agencies flying banners created by nonprofit entities, but it seems like a slippery slope.”

Politicians, business leaders and Mississippi citizens have debated the merits of the current state flag for more than 15 years. In 2001, a ballot initiative sponsored by the Mississippi Economic Council led to a nasty campaign. Mississippians voted almost 2-to-1 then to keep the current state flag in place.

But the politics surrounding the Confederate battle flag have changed since then – most notably in 2015, when a gunman killed nine people in a black church in South Carolina. The shooter affiliated himself closely with the flag. In response, South Carolina and Alabama permanently lowered the Confederate battle flag which had been flown in official capacities on state property.

Determining how to handle the flag in Mississippi was widely considered a key issue going into the 2016 legislative session after Gunn publicly stated the state should change the flag. But during the session, 19 bills that dealt with the state flag died in committee before making it to the floors for votes.

The issue is expected to be taken up again in the 2017 regular session, which begins Jan. 3.

See the bicentennial banner flying? Email us at [email protected]