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A fight grows in Mississippi over the state flag's Confederate emblem

Momentum is growing in Mississippi to remove the Confederate battle emblem — long decried as a symbol of racism and violence — from the official flag of the state, the last to display the Confederate design within its own ensign. But the proposed replacement is causing friction within the group of activists pushing for change.

Last week, a bipartisan group of Mississippi lawmakers quietly began drafting legislation to change the state flag, the first time the issue has been addressed seriously since 2001. That year, constituents voted two to one in a ballot measure to keep the flag as is. 

Confederate Flag Mississippi
A person waves a small Mississippi state flag while driving past the Governor's Mansion in Jackson in April 2020. Rogelio V. Solis / AP

Despite the failed attempt nearly 20 years ago, one activist, Jarrius Adams, is hopeful that this time will be different. After all, at just 22 years old, Adams was a child in 2001, and so were many other young progressives like himself. 

For some, the inclusion of the Confederate symbol in the flag is a nod to the state's history and tradition. But for many in Mississippi, the state with the highest percentage of black Americans, it's a symbol of racism, hatred and violence.

"I love my state, it's just that my state doesn't always love me back," Adams said.

An online petition to change the flag had received more than 140,000 signatures by Monday afternoon.

"Myself, and so many other people my age, can't be black or an activist and be silent on Confederate symbols such as the flag," Adams said. "For so many people it represents this history that was not welcoming of our community, not inclusive, and in many cases just disregarded the contributions that our people have made to Mississippi and the nation."

Widespread protests spurred by the death of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man who lost his life after a police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes, have gripped the nation, reaching well beyond the country's liberal cities and into its suburban and rural communities. As the Black Lives Matter movement builds on its momentum, demonstrators are asking not only for police reform but also for a reexamination of the racism that exists in all corners of society. 

Many symbols of the Confederacy have vanished in the wake of Floyd's death. Earlier this month, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced his intention to remove a towering statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from Richmond's historic Monument Avenue. Last week, military leaders said they were open to renaming forts named after Confederate generals, a proposal that was rejected by President Trump. And on Wednesday, NASCAR announced it would prohibit the display of the Confederate flag during races and other events, writing in a statement that the flag's presence "runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment."

But nowhere is the Confederate flag more on display than in Mississippi, the last remaining state to include the design on its official state flag. The flag — which features the Confederate battle emblem prominently in the upper left quadrant — flies in front of state buildings including the Governor's mansion, the state capitol building and municipal structures across the state.

Last week, a bipartisan group of Mississippi legislators took on the ambitious project of reviving a bill that had died in committee in March which would remove the Confederate symbol from the state flag. By Monday, the legislation had been referred to the Senate Constitutional Committee. The bill proposes changing the flag not by ballot measure, but legislative action, something Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves has vocally opposed.

In a press conference last Monday, Reeves sidestepped questions on his personal opinion of the Mississippi flag but did say the decision should sit with the voters, not politicians. A spokesperson for Reeves did not respond to emails and calls requesting comment.

The proposed alternative, and one that flies in front of many homes in Mississippi already, is the Stennis Flag, a design with 19 blue stars around one large star to commemorate the state's induction into the United States in 1817. But the flag faces its own criticism: Its designer and namesake, Laurin Stennis, is the white granddaughter of the late U.S. Senator John C. Stennis, an outspoken segregationist who voted against the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. 

Citing Senator Stennis' voting record, Adams said he was uncomfortable with the replacement.

"I totally understand that, but if they're good with the design, they recognize the momentum we have and they can understand that this is, you know, a white person cleaning up another white person's mess," Stennis said during a telephone interview with CBS News on Monday.

After moving back to Mississippi in the fall of 2013, Stennis, a social worker by trade, found herself uncomfortable with the existing Mississippi flag and started working on her own alternative.

"I really wanted to put a flag out, but I would never, ever use our current state flag," Stennis said. "I don't identify with it. It doesn't speak to me, or Mississippi."

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