Black lawmakers boycott conference over state flag

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The Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus announced Monday it will skip the Southern Legislative Conference, which will be held this year in Biloxi, because of the state flag.

The 51 members of the black caucus said they would boycott this year’s conference because Mississippi leaders have failed to address changing the state flag, which is the last in the country containing the Confederate battle emblem.

The caucus expressed disappointment with House Speaker Philip Gunn and the Southern Legislative Conference  for choosing to host its conference in Mississippi because of the flag.

The Southern Legislative Conference, chaired this year by Gunn, is a coalition of state legislators who meet annually to discuss policy work inside statehouses across the South.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport

“A stronger statement would have been to conduct the 2017 meeting in another state,” wrote Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport, in a letter to Gunn. “As a body, the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus voted to boycott this year’s SLC meeting. We believe participation at the meeting would send a message of support for the continued use of the Confederate flag.”

Last session, lawmakers filed 22 bills dealing with the state flag in some manner. All died in committee.

Twelve bills, all drafted by black Democrats, proposed a new state flag, while seven bills, all drafted by white Republicans, would impose statutory punishments for governmental entities refusing to fly it.

Two bills would have left the issue to Mississippi voters on a statewide ballot (one in November 2017 and the other in November 2018), and another would have adopted a second official state flag.

All eight of the state’s public universities have stopped flying the flag, as well as some of the state’s largest cities, including Jackson, Biloxi, Tupelo, Greenville, Hattiesburg, Columbus and Vicksburg.

Williams-Barnes wrote in the letter to Gunn that she hoped he would use his position to “encourage (the SLC) to support our efforts to replace the flag with one all Mississippians can be proud to display.”

“We wish not to turn our backs on the millions of Mississippians, including our constituents, who desire a change in our state’s most prominent official symbol,” Williams-Barnes wrote. “This decision is taken seriously and after much consideration.”

Click here to see the full letter from the Legislative Black Caucus. 

In 2001, Mississippi voters decided overwhelmingly to keep flying the current state flag. Since then, no substantial executive or legislative action has been taken. Since 2000, five flag-related initiatives failed to garner enough signatures to make a statewide ballot. Initiative 55, which expired Oct. 15, 2016, would have stripped the Confederate emblem from the state flag. Initiative 58, which expired Nov. 5, 2016, would have cemented the adoption of the current state flag in the Mississippi Constitution.

Mississippi leaders are split on the issue. Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves have cited the 2001 vote, saying Mississippians should vote again on whether to change the flag. Opponents of the flag say a 16-year-old vote should not dictate today’s policy.

Gunn remains the highest-ranking state officials to vocally oppose the flag, citing a portion of the population that feels excluded by the rebel emblem it contains.

Mississippi Today

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton

“My position on the flag has not changed,” Gunn told Mississippi Today earlier this year. “I still believe the flag needs to be changed. I think we can find something that represents all of Mississippi, so we’re going to continue those discussions to see what we can come up with.”

The Mississippi Economic Council, a coalition of the business leaders that serves as the state’s chamber of commerce, led the 2001 charge to change the flag. In late 2016, the council unveiled a bicentennial banner to honor the state’s 2017 bicentennial. Many, including former council president Blake Wilson, say the banner could spark a new conversation about the 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 said. “It’s not a brand that brings people together.”