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National

Mississippi Residents Debate Confederate Flag's Place On State Flag

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Several states are debating the use of the Confederate flag in the wake of last week's massacre in Charleston. Lawmakers in South Carolina voted to allow discussion about removing the flag from the grounds of the state house. Virginia's governor wants the flag removed from license plates. And in Mississippi, where the old Confederate battle flag is incorporated into the design of the state flag, the speaker of the House says it's time for that to change. Desare Frazier of Mississippi Public Broadcasting has more.

DESARE FRAZIER, BYLINE: Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant says he's not in favor of making any changes. He says residents voted by a 2-1 margin in 2001 to keep it, and he supports that decision.

PHIL BRYANT: I don't think that we need to go about trying to supersede the will of the people. The discussion was certainly not (unintelligible), but their vote was taken, it was on the ballot, and I think across the state of Mississippi, a fairly strong vote to keep it.

FRAZIER: State Representative Alyce Clarke, who is African-American, has spent 30 years in the Mississippi legislature. She says lawmakers have tried before to change the flag but the bills never went anywhere. Now that House Speaker Philip Gunn wants it removed, she's elated.

ALYCE CLARKE: I think we have come a long ways, and I think a change with the (unintelligible) of the flag would show progress for Mississippi. I hate for us to be the last state that's willing do something about it.

FRAZIER: Clarke regrets it took the deaths of nine African-Americans attending church in South Carolina to draw attention to the issue and the message of racism that many associate with the Confederate symbol.

KENNETH TOWNSEND: Sometimes it takes pretty horrific things to jolt us.

FRAZIER: That's Kenneth Townsend, who teaches political science at Millsaps College. He says the Confederate flag holds prides for some Mississippians and reminds others of the state's racist past. Townsend says most Republicans haven't wanted to change the flag before, and he thinks it might happen now.

TOWNSEND: He is a leader in the Republican Party. He's someone who people in the party respect, and he has the ability to get things done. If he really wants something to happen in the legislature there's a very good chance that he'll make it happen.

FRAZIER: The Mississippi Legislature isn't scheduled to meet until next January, so it's unclear what happens next. For NPR News, I'm Desare Frazier in Jackson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.