In what appears to be the latest twist in a long battle over a symbol, Universities in Mississippi that fail to fly the Confederate-themed flag will likely lose the proposed tax breaks. Some critics see the move as pure racism. However, all the eight Mississippi public universities have stopped flying the flag because it prominently features the Confederate battle emblem, something that has angered supporters of the banner.
A vote of 57-56 by the state House will see the proposed tax exemptions withheld to public universities that refuse to fly the flag. The House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeff Smith, R-Columbus made a statement in which he said that the flag provision is likely to disappear from the final version of the bill in the next few weeks.
The Senate Bill 2509 would provide tax exemption for Mississippi State University and the University of Southern Mississippi, although it could be expanded to add other institutions. Th Republican Rep. William Shirley of Quitman wrote that flag amendment and said that Universities should fly the state symbol if they take the state money, adding that it had nothing to do with the current design at all.
In response to Shirley’s remarks, the Democratic Rep. Chris Bell of Jackson said that forcing Universities to fly the flag will hurt the academic and athletic recruiting. Bell urged the House colleagues to stop hindering the future of Mississippi, as he emphasized that the House colleagues should not take the state back.
The Mississippi state happens to be the last one with a flag that that includes the Confederate symbol — a field of red, topped by a tilted blue cross dotted by 13 white stars. The flag, in use since 1894, has been a source of division for years. Voters chose to keep the design in 2001, but only after a series of public hearings that devolved into shouting matches over a symbol that supporters see as a representation of history and heritage, and that critics see as a reminder of slavery and segregation.
The Mississippi flag is like other symbols of the Old South, and hence it has come under increased scrutiny since the June 2015 massacre of nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The white man convicted in the slayings had posed for online photos holding a Confederate battle flag. South Carolina lawmakers removed a Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse lawn soon after the slayings, and there were bipartisan calls in Mississippi for the state to change its flag to better represent a state with a 38 percent black population. Petitions calling for elections to either change the flag or preserve the flag both failed, however, because organizers gathered too few signatures
The House Speaker of Mississippi, Philip Gunn who is a Republican, called for changing the flag in 2015, but bills have failed because Gunn said there is no consensus in the Republican-majority House.
GOP Gov. Phil Bryant has said repeatedly that if the flag design is to be reconsidered, it should be done by voters and not by lawmakers or courts.
There were arguments on Tuesday in New Orleans as the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on whether the flag lawsuit should be revived. The attorney who filed the suit, Carlos Moore, argues the flag portrays him and other African-American residents of Mississippi as second-class citizens. A federal district judge Mississippi ruled in September that Moore lacked legal standing to file the suit.
However, Moore is asking the appeals court to reverse that decision and order a trial on the merits of his argument on the controversial issue.