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