Petitions fail to strip Confederate emblem from state flag

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — An effort to erase the Confederate battle emblem from Mississippi’s flag has failed because sponsors didn’t collect enough signatures to put an initiative on the 2018 ballot.

The petition drive started in response to the June 2015 slayings of nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and was part of a movement across the South to rethink the public display of Confederate images.

It ended Friday when sponsors missed a one-year deadline to gather signatures from registered voters.

South Carolina removed a Confederate battle flag from its Statehouse grounds weeks after the Charleston massacre. New Orleans leaders voted to move four Confederate monuments off public property. The private Vanderbilt University announced in August that it will remove the word “Confederate” from the name of a campus dormitory in Nashville, Tennessee.

In Mississippi, however, the sound and fury over the Confederate flag has — so far — signified no change in the banner’s official status.

Mississippi’s complicated initiative process requires tens of thousands of signatures from each of the five congressional districts that the state used in the 1990s.

Most proposals fail before getting to the ballot, and that appears to be the fate of Initiative 55, “The Flag For All Mississippians Act,” which proposes clearing the Confederate emblem from the flag.

The initiative’s chief sponsor, Sharon Brown of Jackson, said gathering signatures was a struggle in most places. She told The Associated Press in late September she won’t get enough people to sign petitions.

“Not unless God intervenes between now and the time the deadline is,” Brown said.

She didn’t return phone calls seeking an update later.

Saturday is the deadline for gathering signatures on Initiative 55, but petitions with verified signatures of registered voters had to be submitted by Friday because the secretary of state’s office is closed during the weekend, said Leah Rupp Smith, spokeswoman for the office. She said no paperwork was turned in by close of business Friday.

Since 1894, Mississippi has had the flag with the Confederate symbol in its upper left corner — a field of red topped by a blue tilted cross dotted with 13 white stars. The state Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the flag, while widely displayed, had lacked official status since 1906, when state law books were updated and the flag design was not included. After public hearings degenerated into shouting matches between flag supporters and opponents in the fall of 2000, legislators opted to put the design question on a statewide ballot in 2001, and voters reaffirmed it.

Critics say the Confederate battle emblem is a reminder of slavery and segregation and has no place on the flag of a state with a 38 percent black population, the largest percentage of any state in the nation. Defenders call it a symbol of heritage, and some have held flag-waving protests on university campuses.

The white man charged in the Charleston church killings, Dylann Roof, had previously posed in online photos holding the Confederate battle flag. Although the rebel flag outside the Statehouse had been sacrosanct for generations, the shock of the church slayings prompted South Carolina lawmakers and Republican Gov. Nikki Haley to furl it and even remove the pole on which it flew.

Seven of Mississippi’s eight public universities and several cities and counties have stopped flying the state banner, most of them since Charleston. Days after the shootings, a few Mississippi politicians called for changing the state flag, including Philip Gunn, the state’s first Republican House speaker since Reconstruction.

Gunn, a leader in his local Baptist church, said faith led him to see the Confederate battle emblem as “a point of offense that needs to be removed.” Sons of Confederate Veterans and others responded with yard signs and bumper stickers declaring: “Keep the Flag. Change the Speaker.” This year, some lawmakers proposed either changing the flag or punishing universities and local governments that don’t fly it. Gunn said he couldn’t find consensus among House members to push any of the bills into law, and they all died.

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has said any reconsideration of the flag design should be done by voters.

Another proposed ballot measure, Initiative 58, seeks to protect the Confederate image on Mississippi’s flag by enshrining it in the state constitution. Currently, the flag could be changed by a simple majority of the Legislature, if the political will arises. Putting it in the constitution would require a statewide vote to change it.

Initiative 58 supporters are also having problems gathering signatures; sponsor Rafael Sanchez of McComb said Thursday that he thinks the effort will fall short.

Their deadline is Nov. 5.

“A lot of people don’t believe that it’s come down to a serious enough situation that it actually could change,” Sanchez said of the flag. “A lot of people are naive to the fact that it’s a very real possibility.”

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