Public opinion of the Mississippi state flag — the last in the nation containing the Confederate battle emblem — is shifting, according to a poll conducted last month.
A September survey of Mississippi voters by Jackson-based, Democratic-leaning polling firm Chism Strategies shows that just 49 percent of Mississippians favor the current state flag while 41 percent want to retire it and 10 percent are undecided about the issue.
The percentage of Mississippians who told pollsters they support the flag is down from the 2001 flag referendum vote total, when 64 percent of voters affirmed the current state flag design. That same year, 36 percent of voters favored a new, specific flag design — one that critics at the time said was a political stunt to sway voters from voting against the current design.
While African Americans posted “strong support for a new flag,” the Chism poll results said 62 percent of white voters oppose changing the flag. However, “a slight majority” of whites under the age of 55 said the flag should change. Most voters polled — 55 percent to 27 percent — believe the 2001 vote settled the issue, pollsters found.
The politically charged debate gained new life in Mississippi after the violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., in August, when several hate groups flew the Confederate emblem. A Ku Klux Klan member at that rally was photographed holding a flag similar to the Mississippi state flag.
All eight public universities in Mississippi have taken down the state flag, along with several of the state’s largest cities and counties. Pro-business and tourism groups have cited economic losses when discussing desire to change the flag — the Mississippi Economic Council, the state’s chamber of commerce, created a bicentennial banner in hopes it could spur a conversation about changing the state flag.
Key religious groups including the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest religious group in the state of Mississippi, have spoken against the symbol.
Several notable Mississippi political leaders have said the state should adopt a new flag, including U.S. Sens. Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran, House Speaker Philip Gunn, Treasurer Lynn Fitch and Attorney General Jim Hood.
Republican commentator Andy Taggart penned a letter last month, calling for the Mississippi Republican Party to “stand in favor of making this extremely important change for the future of our state.”
Meanwhile, other top Mississippi leaders have balked at talks of changing the flag, instead pointing back to the 2001 referendum and saying voters should again decide whether a change should occur. U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves have all said the issue should be left to voters.
Some legislators have written bills the past two years that would punish universities for refusing to fly the state flag. All legislation – about three dozen bills either for or against the flag – has died in committee the past two years.
The U.S. Supreme Court has requested more information from attorneys representing Gov. Bryant in a federal lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of the state flag. The lawsuit, which cites the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment, argues that the state flag is “one of racial hostility” and “the state’s continued expression of its message of racial disparagement” labels African-Americans as second-class citizens.
Political operatives who support the flag believe the 2001 vote should stand, even after the national tragedies that have brought new light to the flag. Many politicos who oppose the flag, however, say the risks of taking the issue to the polls are too great.
“Opponents of a new state flag feel much more strongly than do new flag advocates,” a Chism Strategies statement said. “Moreover, this flag debate would probably get high-jacked by the Far Right as a rallying cry in the culture wars and the final vote would not reflect the merits of a new flag.”