Ole Miss men's basketball coach Kermit Davis was among the college athletic department officials who lobbied the Mississippi Legislature to change the state flag in Jackson on Thursday. Photo by: Ben Portnoy/Dispatch Staff
June 26, 2020 10:42:43 AM
JACKSON -- The tide is turning in the Mississippi Legislature.
As athletic department officials from Ole Miss, Mississippi State and other Magnolia State institutions, along with various lobbyists, descended on the state Capitol in Jackson on Thursday, lawmakers hoped the effort would draw out the votes both the House and Senate will need to vote on a bill removing the Confederate battle emblem emblazoned on the state flag.
"The question I had with one of the House members today is when the story is written 10, 20, 30, 40 years from now, wouldn't you want to be on the right side of history?" Rep. Cheikh Taylor (D-Starkville) told The Dispatch. "But that's my opinion. His is that 'I am on the right side of history by preserving (the) heritage.'"
The athletic officials and others -- including, in recent days the Mississippi Baptist Association and other ministers -- have all called for legislators to support a flag without the Confederate battle emblem, saying it's offensive to Mississippi's Black citizens and divisive for the entire state. Those wanting to keep the current flag say its symbolism is part of Mississippi's heritage.
"I know firsthand what it feels like to see a Confederate flag and pretend that it doesn't have a racist, biased, violent or oppressive overtone," said MSU women's basketball coach Nikki McCray-Penson, who visited the state Capitol Thursday along with other coaches like MSU head football coach Mike Leach and Ole Miss head football coach Lane Kiffin. "It screams hate and it hurts me to my core."
While no bill has been introduced to change the state flag -- which has come under scrutiny from multiple national organizations, including both the NCAA and Southeastern Conference last week -- steps are being taken to do so. The NCAA announced on June 19 no institutions in the state would be able to hold postseason events until the Confederate battle emblem is removed.
The Mississippi Legislature is past its deadline to introduce new legislation, but there's growing optimism amongst lawmakers that they can suspend the rules and allow a bill on the state flag to come to the floor.
For this to happen, both houses will need a two-thirds majority vote to introduce new legislation. Should that occur, it's expected Republican lawmakers -- who would be tasked with drafting the bill -- would propose legislation calling for the lowering of the current state banner and replacing it with one that no longer boasts Confederate battle flag, though the exact process could fluctuate.
Once the bill is introduced in either the House or Senate, a three-fourths majority would be needed in both houses to pass the legislation.
Golden Triangle representatives on Thursday largely supported that plan.
"I'm for suspending the rules and replacing our state flag," Sen. Chuck Younger (R-Columbus) said in a text message to a Dispatch reporter. "We need to get this behind us."
While Democratic lawmakers are continuing to wrangle the final few votes they'd need to bring forth a suspension of the rules regarding the introduction of new legislation, there's growing belief amongst decision makers in the state Capitol that the most recent push to change the state flag will be successful.
Having introduced widespread bipartisan support to replace or change the flag, Speaker Philip Gunn (R-Jackson) offered a resounding endorsement of moving forward with legislation during a press conference on the second floor of the Capitol building on Thursday.
Despite not originally planning to speak, Gunn took the podium before a mass of athletic department officials.
"This is an issue that needs to be resolved and resolved quickly," Gunn said. "The longer it goes the more it festers and the harder it is going to be later on. The image of our state is at stake here, ladies and gentlemen. The nation is watching. They want to know what we as a state stand for."
Rep. Kabir Karriem said he is particularly pleased the move has bipartisan support.
"Our country is at a crossroads," said Karriem, who supports a change to the flag. "And to see the bipartisan support -- which is not a common practice all the time here at the Capitol -- but to see that kind of support, folks reaching across the aisle here at the Capitol is a good thing."
Karriem and Taylor both noted that a vote on suspending the rules would likely happen this weekend. Younger also expected to be in Jackson into the weekend.
"You have to have a couple of days for the bill to make it through the process and both chambers take it up," Rep. Rob Roberson (R-Starkville) told The Dispatch. " Process-wise, it just happened within the next three, four days, if we technically looked at it and wanted it to be that way."
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.
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