One effort to force state colleges and universities to fly the Mississippi state flag is dead, but another remains alive following House action Thursday.

It started Wednesday with discussion on Senate Bill 2509, which would give Mississippi State University and the University of Southern Mississippi the ability to build tax-exempt dorms. Backers of the legislation sought to send the bill to a joint House-Senate conference committee, where other colleges and universities were expected to ask for the same authority.

Rep. William Shirley, R-Quitman, used the bill as an opportunity to introduce an amendment to require any school taking advantage of the tax exempt provision to fly the state flag. All eight state universities decline to fly the flag because it features the controversial Confederate battle emblem.

But Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, told the House on Wednesday that the amendment would not remain in the bill when it gets to a joint House-Senate conference committee.

So on Thursday, Shirley, noting what Smith had said the day before, offered up the same amendment on a different bill dealing with bonds for colleges and universities.

“If he’s going to take it out, I’m going to offer it again so we have the House’s position in it,” Shirley said.

Smith had vowed to kill the flag provision, telling reporters that he would kill SB 2509 because a similar bill without a flag-flying requirement remained alive in the Senate.

However, Rep. Willie Bailey, D-Greenville, raised a point of order that the amendment was improper for the subject matter in the bill. As a result, the bill was tabled until House staffers can sort out the discrepancy and Speaker Philip Gunn can rule on Bailey’s objection.

Gunn spoke with reporters after the House adjourned about the state flag.

“Here’s the way I see this: It’s no surprise there’s a large number of people who are offended by (the flag),” Gunn said. “It appears our universities have (chosen) they don’t agree with the message they perceive it sends, as have a number of cities and towns in our state.”

“That’s a difficult dilemma for the government to rise up and say you must do something you find personally offensive,” he said.

Gunn noted however, that the House remains divided on the issue.

“Your flag ought to be the banner that unites not divides,” Gunn said. “I advocate a banner that would unite the state, everybody can be proud of and everybody can unite behind. I don’t think we currently have that.”

Shirley has unsuccessfully offered similar measures in the past and said that he would continue offering the amendment until it passes.

“We’re going to keep rocking this baby until we get it done,” Shirley said. 

Several African American Democratic members spoke against Shirley’s proposal on Wednesday. Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, said the state flag reminds him of a statue that stands in a first floor committee room of the Capitol of white supremacist former Gov. Theodore Bilbo.

“That flag does not make us feel welcome in the state of Mississippi,” said Blackmon, who is African American. “Why would we touch the nerves of so many people just because you believe you can. Flags should unite not divide. We should all feel proud about the flag that represents this state.”

Contributing: Adam Ganucheau

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Ryan L. Nave, a native of University City, Mo., served as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief from May 2018 until April 2020. Ryan began his career with Mississippi Today February 2016 as an original member of the editorial team. He became news editor August 2016. Ryan has a bachelor’s in political science from the University of Missouri-Columbia and has worked for Illinois Times and served as news editor for the Jackson Free Press.

5 replies on “Flag amendment is dead — and alive”

  1. I just got off the phone with this well educated Shirley and he was the most defensive politician I have ever spoken with on the phone. He tried to convince me it wasn’t about the current flag, but about any flag that represents our state. I asked him to focus his energy on the adoption of a new flag. He asked me if we adopted a rainbow flag, would it represent all the citizens of the states. I explained that I wouldn’t have a problem with it, but it would never get the votes. How he managed to bring the LGBTQ discussion into this I have no idea, but he was intent on making his point that he was not a white supremacist or racist, which he stated a number of times. He also stated that I was naive if I thought that Vitter wouldn’t shoot the stars and bars right up that pole if he was successful in withholding access to state funds. I doubt he would go down without an argument. Good luck Mr. Fish Shack Owner with your auctioneer degree.

    1. He doesn’t have to introduce a single bill or amendment and it’s still the state flag, so it’s about race and power. He wants black folks to sit quietly at the back of the bus.

    2. “… He asked me if we adopted a rainbow flag, would it represent all the citizens of the states…”

      I can assume he finds the rainbow flag offensive and would reject it as a state flag for that reason, yet he turns a blind eye when people point out the offensive nature of the confederate flag.

      Yeah, he’s a racist.

  2. School children are taught to focus on one topic at a time. Too many members of the Mississippi Legislature refused to learn this lesson.

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