Two Mississippi universities have removed the state flag, which features a Confederate emblem, from their campuses amid statewide debate over what to do with the controversial banner.
Mississippi State University and the Mississippi University for Women are the latest state schools to furl the flag in response to concerns that it no longer represents modern-day Mississippi. Of the state’s eight public universities, Delta State University is the only one left still flying the flag.
The changes come at a time when schools and local governments across the state have taken steps to distance themselves from Confederate symbols, though it’s not the first time the state has grappled with the issue.
In a 2001 referendum, 65% of Mississippians voted to keep the Confederate emblem instead of replace it with 20 white stars on a blue field to represent Mississippi’s status as the 20th state.
The 2015 Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting led to renewed calls nationwide to abandon Confederate symbols amid evidence that the massacre was racially motivated. The debate materialized in Mississippi through its state flag, which has existed in its current form since 1894, featuring the Confederate battle emblem in the left corner.
But the momentum has failed to reach state lawmakers, who rejected various proposals to change the flag in the last legislative session. Gov. Phil Bryant’s office did not immediately return requests for comment, but he has said before that any change to the state flag should be decided by the people in a vote.
Meanwhile, schools and communities have taken matters into their own hands.
“Under our process of shared governance, the leadership in our individual colleges have flexibility in making decisions about operations under their jurisdiction. In keeping with that process, requests were made recently to replace the Mississippi flag in several locations with a larger American flag to better conform to our very large American flag which flies over the Drill Field (MSU’s primary campus green space),” Mississippi State University spokesman Sid Salter said.
MSU President Mark E. Keenum approved those requests, a move Student Association President Roxanne Raven hailed as “courageous” given “the political climate at the state level.”
“I want this to be a welcoming environment and for every student on campus to feel they have a place. With this being gone I think it is a step closer to making everyone feel welcome,” Raven said in a phone interview Tuesday.
After Charleston, students approached deans of various departments where the flag few and asked them to take it down, she said. Its symbolism created an unwelcoming atmosphere for minority students and others who felt it did not represent Mississippi, she said.
“The flag doesn’t represent to me all the wonderful things that Mississippi stands for,” she said. “Mississippi doesn’t always have the best national image and I think the flag and its symbolism are partially responsible for that.
“As a Mississippian I want to be known for more than the state flag.”
A majority of students wanted the flag to come down, but not everyone supported the decision, she said.
The opposition was reflected in comments on the school’s Facebook page.
“You should fly the state flag. It is the current state flag and voters voted on it,” one commenter said. “I graduated from MSU and I am disgusted.”
“All state funding should be removed from any school refusing to fly the state flag,” another person said.
Mississippi University for Women President Dr. Jim Borsig said the decision to remove the flag came after campus discussions, which led to a united call for state lawmakers to change the flag.
“The redesign of the north campus grounds required removing a flagpole and the decision was made at that time to not replace the state flag,” he said in a statement on Facebook.
“The W’s student body reflects Mississippi’s wonderful diversity and over 85% of our students are from Mississippi. Enrollment is up this fall and we remain committed to our mission of creating opportunities for all Mississippians.”