Top executive: Send state flag issue to ballot, and ‘any business considering locating here will pause’

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Protesters fly the Mississippi state flag at a “Reopen Mississippi” protest on Saturday, April 25, 2020.

One of the state’s top executives said that elected officials would compromise the state’s ability to attract new business if they choose to let voters decide the fate of the state flag, which features the Confederate battle emblem.

John Hairston, CEO of Hancock Whitney bank and one of the most prominent business leaders in the state, told Mississippi Today he believes lawmakers, not voters, should change the state flag.

John Hairston

“If the issue goes to the polls, it will be covered by every major network. Any business considering locating here will pause, not wanting to take the risk of locating here until resolution,” Hairston said. “What if the vote is a narrow win, or worse, an outright loss? What does that mean about our people? We have too much goodness in Mississippi to take the risk. I support the Legislature taking action now, and let’s get this decades-long issue put to bed.”

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.

Hairston is one of several business leaders in the state who has called for lawmakers to change the state flag. One of the largest individual campaign donors to Gov. Tate Reeves, Hairston was appointed to Reeves’ “Restart Mississippi” commission earlier this year. He was previously appointed to state commissions by former Govs. Haley Barbour and Phil Bryant.

He said the state flag is already hindering the state’s ability to attract business.

“Employers look at our state as a very good place to consider locating all or part of their workforce, but they are all sensitive to the flag and how it could still be flying after all these years,” Hairston said. “Every business leader involved in economic development has been forced to defend the state against the image created from the flag.”

Mississippi Today recently asked Hairston about his position on the state flag. Below is a word-for-word transcript of the interview.

Mississippi Today: Do you think Mississippi should change its state flag?  

John Hairston: We have so much to be proud of, and now is the moment to focus on those things that unite us and let history take those things that divide us.

Mississippi Today: Does the current state flag hinder your bank’s ability to attract and secure out-of-state business?

Hairston: Yes, absolutely. Mississippi has a solid and improving public education system, improving health care, a high performing workforce education utility, abundant quality of life, and a low cost of living. Employers look at our state as a very good place to consider locating all or part of their workforce, but they are all sensitive to the flag and how it could still be flying after all these years.

Every business leader involved in economic development has been forced to defend the state against the image created from the flag. 

It is the single biggest detriment we face when recruiting executives to work in Mississippi. Before we ever get to compensation or the role, we have to get past the flag.

Since 2001, while Mississippi has made solid progress on many fronts, nearly every key metric of economic health has under-performed neighboring southeast states – Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia. We are past the time to update the flag and then move on to matters creating opportunities for our people.  Mississippi has all the necessary ingredients to create a vigorous and impressive economy – but we can’t do it as a divided people and competing with other regions with one arm tied beyond our back.  We need to change the flag and then ride that decision as an indication of Mississippi moving forward.

Mississippi Today: Do you think leaders should send the issue to the ballot, or should they decide it themselves? Do you worry about what a months-long campaign could do for the state?  

Hairston: I believe the Legislature and statewide leaders should all rally around making the change now. The day of the vote, the world will celebrate with us. If the issue goes to the polls, it will be covered by every major network. Any business considering locating here will pause, not wanting to take the risk of locating here until resolution. What if the vote is a narrow win, or worse, an outright loss? What does that mean about our people?  We have too much goodness in Mississippi to take the risk. I support the legislature taking action now, and let’s get this decades-long issue put to bed.

Mississippi Today: Is timing a consideration for you? Presuming the sooner a change occurs, the better for you and your business? 

Hairston: I believe the heat will continue getting turned up until it is resolved. How will our coaches recruit athletic talent for our universities? How will employers recruit talent? We just celebrated Father’s Day weekend – how wonderful would it be if our children could follow superb careers without leaving the state? There is zero excuse for waiting one unnecessary day to begin the journey towards a vibrant economy, unified people, and end the practice of battling it out for number 49 or number 50 on way too many lists.