Leaders consider letting Mississippi voters decide fate of the state flag. Are they sidestepping?

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Supporters of the state flag rally at the Mississippi State Capitol in 2016. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

Let voters decide.

This has long been a refrain from many elected state leaders when they’re asked about stripping the Confederate battle emblem from the Mississippi state flag.

It’s been echoing through the halls of the state Capitol in recent days as Mississippi, the state with the highest percentage population of African Americans, is again in the national spotlight for having a symbol tied to white supremacy in the canton of its official banner.

While a popular vote on the flag might sound like a nod to egalitarian ideals, for many state lawmakers — and the last three Mississippi governors — calling for a referendum on the flag or noting that one was already held in 2001 has been something of a dodge. It appears to be a way to sidestep taking a clear stance on an issue that has roiled the state for decades.

“I believe very strongly that if we’re going to change the flag, the people of Mississippi should be the ones who make that decision,” Gov. Tate Reeves said in a press conference on Thursday. Asked repeatedly, he otherwise refused to say whether he favors changing the flag, or even how he might vote in such a referendum despite it being a predominant issue during Reeves’ entire political career to date.

Many state officials and political observers have noted that holding another public referendum on the flag would garner Mississippi much terrible worldwide publicity, no matter the outcome. As Mississippi Today this week polled legislators on the flag, quite a few of the dozens who publicly said voters should decide candidly lamented the prospect of such a national spectacle.

Others say that in a representative democracy, it’s the job of elected representatives to decide such issues – that our founding fathers were just as afraid of “tyranny by majority” as they were of despots. If everything were decided by direct referendum, there would likely be no civil rights. Government would not be able to levy taxes. The most populous areas of the nation and our state would dictate everything.

“As senators and representatives, we have been sent to the Capitol to lead, to make decisions,” said state Sen. Angela Turner Ford, D-West Point, chairwoman of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus, which supports changing the flag and opposes having a referendum. “… Why not go on and address this issue while we are here in Jackson? We decide on spending billions of dollars, on state laws. It’s our job.”

Ford noted that the Legislature several years ago changed the state seal, without any hue and cry that it should go to a referendum. Similarly, the current state flag was adopted by lawmakers, not voters, in an 1894 special legislative session.

Andy Taggart, longtime Mississippi politician, author and patriarch of the state Republican Party, has been an outspoken supporter of changing the flag. He believes the Legislature should change it.

“There’s no question in my mind, if Jim Crow laws were put to a public referendum of Mississippi voters in the 1950s and 60s, those laws would have been left in place,” Taggart said. “We elect legislators to make hard decisions — about raising or lowering our taxes, to borrow or not borrow millions of dollars in public debt.”

Taggart continued: “What ought to happen is the Legislature ought to retire our state flag, with dignity. We have a new state history museum, let’s have a lovely, dignified retirement ceremony for the flag … The fact that this happens to be an emotional and hard issue is not a reason for the Legislature not to gut-up and do it.”

Taggart said he believes lawmakers pitch a referendum as “a dodge,” but “I don’t fear it the way some people do.” Taggart said he believes Mississippians would vote to change the flag.

“While I wouldn’t like to air our dirty laundry in such a public campaign, I’m confident people want to change our flag,” Taggart said. “… If it is sent to a public referendum, I will embrace it as much as I can and work to prevail on the vote.”

This week, Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said: “I have been, and I am today, in favor of placing a decision on Mississippi’s flag on a statewide ballot …  It is time for this controversy to be resolved. I believe the flag which represents me and my grandchildren should reflect all of our citizens’ collective future, as determined by those who will live under that banner.”

House Speaker Philip Gunn, the most prominent Mississippi GOP lawmaker to definitively call for changing the flag, said on Friday his opinion hasn’t changed.

“The options we’ve got are for the Legislature to take the leadership role, or put it to a referendum,” Gunn said. “… I’ve always maintained that I feel the Legislature should take the leadership role.”

But Gunn said the realpolitik is that it does not appear there are enough votes in the Legislature to do so, at least in this session, which is set to end next week. He said there is some discussion about pushing the issue to a referendum.

“We are continuing to have those conversations and monitor votes,” Gunn said. “… If all we can get is a referendum, then so be it.”