2 more universities stop flying Mississippi state flag

The Mississippi state flag is displayed with the banners of other American states, territories and commonwealths, above a walkway in the tunnel from the Capitol Building to the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, Friday, July 1, 2016. The flag is unique among U.S. state flags as it is the only one which still depicts elements of the Confederate battle flag.(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

JACKSON, MS (AP) — Two more Mississippi universities have stopped flying the state’s flag featuring the Confederate battle emblem, decisions that drew rebukes from the governor.

Mississippi State University and the Mississippi University for Women confirmed Tuesday that they removed the flag from outdoor flagpoles over the summer. The universities’ actions came after state lawmakers failed to act on changing the flag this year.

“The university community supports a flag that unites everyone in the state behind it,” said Jim Borsig, president of the Mississippi University for Women.

Delta State University is the only public Mississippi university still flying the flag. A statement from that school Tuesday opened the door to removing it if the university cabinet votes to do so.

Gov. Phil Bryant told reporters Tuesday that he disagrees with the universities’ decision to remove the flag. He cited a state law calling for Mississippi’s flag to “receive all of the respect and ceremonious etiquette given the American flag” if displayed. The law doesn’t require public agencies to fly the flag. K-12 schools are required to, but some ignore it.

“Whether you like the flag or not, the state law calls for it to be treated with equal respect,” Bryant said.

In a 2001 referendum, Mississippi voters strongly supported keeping the flag, which has included the Confederate battle emblem in its upper left corner since 1894. But agitation against the flag resumed following the 2015 massacre of nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The white suspect in that case posed for photos with Confederate flags.

After the church shooting, Bryant had said he wanted to give voters another chance to decide whether to change Mississippi’s flag. He repeated that position Tuesday.

“I believe the people have the right to speak on this,” he said.

The changes at both schools came quietly while many students and faculty were away. MSU spokesman Sid Salter said Tuesday that President Mark Keenum approved campus leaders’ requests to remove the flag from five locations on the Starkville campus in June and July. Salter said the flags have been replaced with larger American flags, to mirror the large American flag that has flown alone in MSU’s central quad for at least 15 years. He said 21,000-student MSU removed Mississippi flags from athletic arenas several years ago.

Borsig said 2,700-student MUW was expanding a driveway where the only state flag stood. Borsig said he acted after campus groups discussed the flag last year and he encouraged them to lobby elected officials. He also cited the 50th anniversary of the university’s integration and Mississippi’s 2017 bicentennial.

Mississippi flag opponents welcomed its removal.

“It was important to us to take it down because it just reminded us of the Civil War and people who wanted to keep us slaves,” said Deborah Frazier, president of the Mississippi State campus branch of the NAACP. “Now it doesn’t remind us daily when we see the flag of that oppression.”

Frazier, a junior English major from Benton, was among students who protested the flag in front of Keenum’s office in April. At the time, Keenum said taking the flag down was “a symbolic gesture that accomplishes nothing toward actually changing the state flag.”

Salter said Tuesday that Keenum “has been outspoken in expressing his heartfelt personal support for flag change and has maintained an open dialogue with those representing diverse points of view on the question of the state flag.” Salter said Mississippi’s flag remains part of a display of state and international flags in the university’s main cafeteria.

The University of Mississippi, MSU’s archrival, lowered the Mississippi flag in October. The University of Southern Mississippi also removed state flags last year and three historically black universities removed them earlier. Some Mississippi lawmakers introduced unsuccessful bills in 2016 to force governments and schools to display the flag.

Delta State spokeswoman Jennifer Farish said that 3,500-student university would remove the flag if President Bill LaForge’s cabinet, including faculty, staff and students, votes to do so.

“Delta State continues to fly the State flag out of respect to our relationship with the State of Mississippi, and despite our disagreement with symbols that cause an unfortunate barrier to understanding,” Farish said.

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