Update (June 29): Mississippi will change its flag after a vote Sunday from lawmakers in favor of removing the Confederate symbol. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves is expected to sign the bill into law in the next few days. Russell Moore, a Southern Baptist leader who is from the state, tweeted that he was “grateful beyond words” for the decision and “It’s time for a new day.”
Mississippi’s largest religious group said Tuesday that state lawmakers have a moral obligation to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag because many people are “hurt and shamed” by the symbol.
“While some may see the current flag as a celebration of heritage, a significant portion of our state sees it as a relic of racism and a symbol of hatred,” the Mississippi Baptist Convention said in a statement. “The racial overtones of this flag’s appearance make this discussion a moral issue.”
The conservative-leaning and majority-white Southern Baptist group has more than 500,000 members in the state, in more than 2,100 churches. Mississippi’s population is about 3 million, and 38 percent of residents are African American.
Protests against racial injustice across the US are focusing new attention on the flag and other Confederate symbols. The Baptist Convention joins the NCAA, the Southeastern Conference, prominent business organizations, members of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus, and other religious groups in calling for change to the last state flag that includes the Confederate emblem—a red field topped by a blue X with 13 white stars.
Back in 2015, Mississippi native and Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore recalled how he decided to stop displaying his state flag when he realized how African Americans might view the symbol.
“I found myself wincing, wondering what the flag communicates. Should I explain this is not the Confederate flag? I wish it were different, but it’s not,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post.
White supremacists in the Mississippi legislature embedded the Confederate symbol in the upper left corner of Mississippi state flag in 1894, amid backlash to political power that African Americans gained during Reconstruction.
Voters chose to keep the design in a 2001 state election, rejecting an alternative that would have replaced the Confederate symbol with a blue field topped by a cluster of white stars representing Mississippi as the 20th state. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves has said that if the flag is going to be changed, it should be done by another statewide vote.
Legislators are trying to finish their annual session in the next few days. A bipartisan group has been trying to gather enough votes to change the flag, but it’s a tough task. Some lawmakers don’t want change. Others think changing the flag could endanger their own political careers and want to kick a decision to a statewide election.
In 2000, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that the flag lacked official status because legislators didn’t include the design when they updated other state laws in 1906. That meant the Confederate-themed design had been used for nearly a century by tradition rather than by law. Then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, appointed a 17-member commission to study flag design in 2000 and to make recommendations on the issue.
Democratic state Rep. Ed Blackmon of Canton served the commission, which held public hearings in late 2000.
“You have no idea of the vitriol, the hatred and pronouncements of evil that were bestowed upon those of us who were present,” Blackmon said Tuesday. “It brought out the worst in Mississippians.”
All of Mississippi’s public universities stopped flying the state flag years ago because of the Confederate symbol. Several cities and counties have also removed it from public property, some long ago and some recently.
Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, was one of the most vocal Southern Baptist leaders in favor of the convention’s vote to repudiate the Confederate flag in 2016.
“The Confederate flag is a symbol of horrific injustices against our African American brothers and sisters in Christ and has been used as a threat of terrorism against them,” he said. “Today Southern Baptists affirmed that we are more committed to the gospel than we are to a flag and more committed to the future than we are to the past.”