Top CEO: ‘People will boycott Mississippi products’ if lawmakers put state flag on ballot

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The CEO of one of the state’s largest companies told Mississippi Today on Tuesday that he fears sustained national boycotts of Mississippi businesses if lawmakers let voters decide the fate of the state flag, which contains the Confederate battle emblem.

Joe Frank Sanderson, the 73-year-old CEO and board chairman of Laurel-based Sanderson Farms, said lawmakers’ deliberations of sending the state flag issue to the ballot is “the wrong step,” and that “there are going to be dire consequences if we take this turn.”

Joe Sanderson

“There are going to be all kinds of demonstrations. There are going to be boycotts, just like the SEC and NCAA,” Sanderson told Mississippi Today. “Conventions are not going to come here, people are not going to come to the casinos, people will boycott Mississippi products, jobs are going to be affected. Those are the economic realities.”

Sanderson continued: “I’m afraid the political leaders in Jackson are not thinking about that. They need to think that long term, those are the consequences of calling a quick referendum on this flag.”

Lawmakers in both the Senate and House have engaged in conversations about changing the state flag the past two weeks as protests about racial equality have continued across the state and nation. Tens of thousands of protesters in Mississippi have focused their demands around the state flag.

Late last week, as pressure to change the flag continued to grow, lawmakers discussed two options: adopting a second official state flag or letting Mississippi voters decide the fate of the current flag. In 2001, Mississippi voters chose nearly 2-to-1 to keep the current design. Leaders who support changing the flag fear a similar outcome would stall efforts to change the flag for years to come.

At the end of the day Monday, leaders in both the House and Senate did not feel they had the votes to change the flag or put the issue on the ballot. Lawmakers plan to end the 2020 legislative session on Friday.

Sanderson, one of the most respected business leaders in the state, is one of several who has called for lawmakers to change the state flag. He has the ear of every politician in Jackson, and is a top campaign donor to Gov. Tate Reeves and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann. For decades, the state’s most powerful politicians have turned to him for economic development counsel.

He says that the state’s leaders, not voters, should change the flag promptly.

The inclusion of the Confederate battle flag in our state flag offends and brings up bad memories for 38 percent of our population, and I think our flag ought to be uniting and not divisive,” Sanderson said. “The flag is not part of the fabric of this state. It doesn’t need to be about anything that happened 150 years ago; it needs to be about our vision for the future for all our people.”

Editor’s note: Joe Sanderson contributed to Mississippi Today in 2016.