Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport, spoke about closing the gender pay gap during a news conference on Wednesday.

African American lawmakers wanted a special session to change Mississippi’s state flag because it bears a symbol of the Confederacy, but Gov. Phil Bryant won’t call lawmakers back to Jackson to address that issue.

The Associated Press reported that a Bryant spokesman said Wednesday that voters should settle the issue. For that to happen, either the Legislature would need to call for a referendum or enough voters would need to sign a petition seeking a statewide referendum.

Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, chairwoman of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus, in a hand-delivered letter to Bryant’s office earlier this week, cited “deaths and acts of terror in Charlottesville (Va.),” where white nationalists, neo-Nazis and right-wing groups held a march over the weekend.

Heather Heyer, of Charlottesville, died after being struck when a car plowed into a group of protesters in Virginia. James Fields Jr., of Ohio, was arrested and charged with second degree murder.

“The images out of Virginia were another clear reminder that Confederate symbols have no place in Mississippi’s state flag,” Barnes wrote.

Mississippi’s flag, whose canton is the Confederate battle flag, has long been a flashpoint in state politics. A 2001 ballot referendum to change the flag failed, but the issue continues to be raised. U.S. Sens. Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran, along with Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, have called for changing the flag as an act of inclusion for all state residents.

The flag issue took on new dimensions two years ago when a white man named Dylann Roof killed nine African Americans attending a church service in Charleston, S.C. After the murders, photos of Roof posing with Rebel flags and other white supremacist symbols emerged, fueling debates across the nation about the use of Confederate symbology, including the Mississippi state flag.

During the last legislative session, lawmakers filed more than 20 bills to either keep or change the flag, all of which died in committee.

22 state flag-related bills filed

The Clarion-Ledger reported Tuesday that Bryant decried the violence in Charlottesville: “Those who practice the extremist ideals of neo-Nazism or white supremacy have no place in Mississippi. I condemn these groups in the strongest possible terms.”

Bryant often points to the 2001 referendum as evidence that voters have already decided the issue regarding the state flag. 

In the wake of the Charlottesville violence, Bryant said: “Whatever the state flag is or is not should be decided by Mississippi voters.” 

Several cities and all the state’s public universities have stopped flying the state flag.

The Mississippi Economic Council, the state’s chamber of commerce representing the largest Mississippi corporations, led the 2001 charge to change the flag. Late last year, the council unveiled a bicentennial banner to honor the state’s upcoming 200th birthday.

House Speaker Philip Gunn speaks with reporters following a William Winter Institute discussion with black legislators in Biloxi in July.

In late July, African American and white lawmakers met behind doors in Biloxi to talk about the flag and race relations.

Gunn, R-Clinton, this week forcefully condemned the state flag, writing on Facebook: “Though it is not to say that everyone who flies Mississippi’s flag has feelings of hatred in their hearts, the confederate battle emblem is painful for many people. It is obvious that the confederate battle emblem continues to be associated with attitudes of bigotry, hatred and racial superiority. I believe this association will only continue to increase, therefore providing more reason to disassociate with this flag. I want to see the flag changed.”

Barnes, the black caucus leader, echoed Gunn in her letter to Bryant.

“Like it or not, Charlottesville was just further proof that the Mississippi state flag resonates with bigots and racists. Hate groups love the flag because it is a symbol of holding an entire race of people down,” Barnes wrote.

She added: “Black Mississippians deserve a flag that doesn’t symbolize racial inferiority. White Mississippians deserve a flag that doesn’t unfairly cast upon them a shadow of hate and intolerance. Mississippians of all stripes deserve better.”

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.