BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - Calls for change when it comes to the Mississippi state flag are not new but despite its history, efforts to change the Mississippi flag in the past have failed.
However, recent demonstrations around the country sparked by the death of George Floyd in police custody have reignited calls to change the current flag, the only state flag in the country that still bears the Confederate battle emblem.
Now, whether it’s done by a legislative vote or by a referendum vote, Sen. Brice Wiggins (MS-R) says he thinks it’s time to revisit the issue.
In a Facebook poll posted last week on Wiggin’s Facebook page, he asked his followers the following: “Do you support the Stennis Flag as the flag to represent all of Mississippi?”
75.7 percent voted yes, in favor of the Stennis Flag while only 24.3 percent voted no.
Wiggins later clarified the findings, saying of the total 6,687 participants, approximately 4,267 respondents were from the state of Mississippi, and 79% of Mississippians responded to change the current flag.
Wiggins said he wasn’t surprised by the poll results, based off what he’s heard from his constituents over the last eight years.
“One of the things that this poll has kind of crystallized for me is that those folks, this new generation, the millenial generation, has not had that chance. And I don’t know that that’s right,” said Wiggins. "Yes, you can vote every four years for your representatives and your elected officials but if we maintain that they had this vote back in 2001, then they’ve been shut out of that. That’s why you have a legislature because you have generations coming in and the legislature ultimately reflects the will of the people.
In 2001, Mississippians voted overwhelmingly in favor of the current state flag. However, almost 20 years later, Wiggins says an entire generation has been left out of the vote.
“What this poll did for me was really brought home how many people of that generation - and look, it’s your late 20s, early 30s, who have not had a chance to have their say - it brought home what I have been hearing from them," said Wiggins.
The senator admits his poll was limiting since it only addressed whether or not people want the Stennis flag. However, he said he has plans to expand the poll to explore other options. It’s a discussion that needs to be had, he said.
“If there’s not a vote, be it in the legislature or just standing by what was had before, then that generation of folks don’t get to have their say. They are taxpaying citizens. In some cases, they are elected officials themselves. We have to be cognizant of that. That’s also for people, the older generation to have their say. Many of their minds may have changed, too.”
Wiggins said the state flag of Mississippi should be a unifying one.
“I respect it. I respect the heritage. I respect the history that we have. We’re all connected by that. And what it’s become, as we can tell by the Facebook poll, is that this flag is a divisive issue. And if people deny that, I think they are not facing reality in the flag that represents the state of Mississippi should be a uniting one. Now, there is a long way between a Facebook poll and coming up or ending up with something that unites everybody in the state of Mississippi. And it may be that the current flag is that one. But I know from where I sit and from what I’ve heard from my constituents is that this is a divisive issue and we have too much divisiveness going on right now, and we need to represent the will of the people.”
There are two ways the flag can be changed, explained Wiggins.
“I have publicly said that this vote can be taken by the legislature. It is a statute and we in the legislature every year vote on statutes. And while I respect and understand people’s vote in 2001 when it went to the people, the reality is that we in the legislature have the right to vote on it. The question has always been and always will be: are we going to have a vote on it? And those are things as a whole that are outside of my control... but there’s also the process of the referendum, of putting it on the ballot for next year and bypassing the legislative process. But there is a whole referendum process you go through. That way, you don’t have to rely on the legislature.”
In order to get a referendum vote, which can be a lengthy process, signatures have to be gathered and presented to the lawmakers. It would then go on the November ballot in the following election year.
As protests and the #BlackLivesMatter movement continues to grow and more people speak out in support of equal human rights, the flag is once again being discussed on a widespread level.
“The recent events have once again thrust the state flag into the conversation. I wanted to get the feedback from my constituents and from Mississippians as a whole,” said Wiggins. “I am willing and able and feel like we as elected officials should take a leadership role on addressing issues that divide our communities, particularly our state. If people don’t think the state flag is divisive, then I don’t know what to say to that. In my eight years in the senate, I have received opinions from all sides. We have great people in the state of Mississippi. We have people that are caring and loving. We’re the Hospitality State. So this has been an issue that we always - and I mean, legislators as a whole - that we receive comments on so I wanted to get feedback on it."
For people who say they want to keep the state flag as it is, Wiggins said he hears them and wants to give their voices the chance to be heard, as well.
“I respect and heard the people on my comments who said, ‘Well we voted on it.' I respect that. But that’s almost 20 years ago,” said Wiggins. “As I said, there’s a whole new generation, a whole new group of Mississippians who never got to weigh in on it. And that’s also why we have a legislative branch which is responsive to the people and we change laws every year. That’s why you have a legislature, is to address laws because the will of the people changes over time. While I respect it - and I’ve always respected it, I respect people’s total opinions on that - it is within the power of the legislature to have a vote.”
At Monday’s press briefing, when asked about the possibility of changing the flag, Gov. Tate Reeves said the choice should be up to Mississippians, not politicians.
“There is going to come a time, at some point I am sure, in which the people of Mississippi are going to want to change the flag," said Reeves. “And my position is that when they want to do that, it should be the people who make that decision, not some backroom deal by a bunch of politicians in Jackson.”