Another Mississippi university stops flying state flag

In this photo taken June 23, 2015, the Mississippi state flag is unfurled against the front of the Governor's Mansion in Jackson, Miss. A new proposal seeks a statewide election on removing the Confederate battle emblem from the Mississippi flag. But it could be years before the issue gets on the ballot, and there's no guarantee voters would accept it.(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Another public university in Mississippi is stopping the display of the state flag on campus because it contains a Confederate battle emblem many see as divisive.

University of Southern Mississippi President Rodney Bennett on Wednesday ordered the state flag removed from the main campus in Hattiesburg and a branch campus on the Gulf Coast.

He said USM will only fly the U.S. flag because it’s a unifying symbol.

“While I love the state of Mississippi, there is passionate disagreement about the current state flag on our campuses and in our communities,” Bennett said in a statement. “I am looking forward to a time when this debate is resolved and USM raises a state flag that unites us.”

His action came two days after the University of Mississippi’s interim chancellor, Morris Stocks, ordered the state flag removed from campus in Oxford. Stocks acted after student and faculty senates adopted resolutions seeking removal of the flag at Ole Miss.

There have been no similar resolutions at USM, where three flagpoles near a busy street now fly U.S. flags. The display previously had the U.S. flag in the center, flanked by a state flag and a black-and-gold USM flag. The Hattiesburg American posted photos of people holding signs on campus Wednesday to support and oppose removal of the state flag.

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, a USM alumnus, has said he thinks universities should fly the flag. State law, however, does not require them to do so.

“I think that if you’ve got a publicly funded institution like that, they should be respectful of the people of the state,” Bryant said Tuesday in response to questions about the flag being removed at Ole Miss.

Since 1894, the Mississippi flag has had the Confederate battle symbol in the upper left corner — a blue X dotted with 13 white stars, over a red field. Mississippi voters chose to keep the flag in a 2001 election, after a series of public hearings in which people argued over whether the flag represents heritage or hatred.

Confederate symbols have come under increased scrutiny since the massacre of nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June. Police said the attack was racially motivated. The man charged in the killings had previously posed for photos online with the Confederate battle flag.

Mississippi’s three historically black universities had previously stopped flying the state flag. Several cities and counties have furled the state flag since the attack in Charleston. The University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson recently took down the flag with no fanfare.

The state flag has been a sensitive topic as Mississippi prepares to elect legislators and statewide officials next week. Bryant, who’s seeking a second term, says if the design is reconsidered, it should be done in another statewide election, not by legislators.

Speaking of universities removing the flag, Bryant said: “It is the people that they need to respect — not what the governor thinks, not what the Legislature thinks. But, a majority of the people voted for that to be the state flag, and now we have institutions that are saying, ‘We ignore the will of the people.’ And I’m very peculiar. I think the people are the sovereigns of this state. And they should be respected and their decision should be respected.”

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