JACKSON, Mississippi — Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson says he loves his native Mississippi, but he believes it's long past time for state elected officials to remove a Confederate battle emblem from the state flag.
Thompson told The Associated Press that state legislators and the governor should deal with redesigning the flag and not put it on a ballot for voters to decide. He sharply criticized two top Republicans, Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who have said repeatedly that if the flag is going to be reconsidered, it should be done in a statewide election.
"One of the things that leadership requires is the ability to look at issues and make decisions for the good of the individuals you represent," Thompson said Friday. "And, for a state like Mississippi to be the only state that still has that symbol on the flag — that flies in the face of the whole leadership mantra."
Bryant and Reeves have never looked to Thompson for political advice, and it's unlikely that they'll do so on the question of who decides a flag design.
The flag is not strictly a partisan issue. Other prominent Republicans, including state House Speaker Philip Gunn and U.S. Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, have said Mississippi should ditch the divisive Confederate symbol and find a flag design that could unify the state. However, they haven't specified whether the change should be made by state legislators or in a referendum.
The public display of Confederate symbols has been a topic of intense debate since mid-June, when nine black worshippers were massacred in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Police said the attack was racially motivated. The white man charged in the killings had previously posed for photos with a Confederate battle flag.
Mississippi has had the same flag since 1894, with the Confederate battle emblem in the upper left corner— a blue X dotted with 13 white stars, over a red field. Voters chose to keep it in a 2001 election.
Since the Charleston attack, several Mississippi cities and counties have furled the state flag. The University of Mississippi and Bryant's alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi, both removed it from campus last week because leaders said the Confederate emblem creates an unwelcoming atmosphere.
Bryant told reporters Thursday that he's not advocating changing the flag but he recognizes the topic is getting lots of discussion. He said if there's going to be a statewide flag election, 2016 would be a good time because presidential elections typically have high voter turnout.
"To ignore the sovereigns, the people who pay the taxes, the people who raise their families, the people who are Mississippi, I think is an improper thing to do," Bryant said.
Thompson, the only African-American member of Mississippi's current congressional delegation, has served in Washington since 1993. He said that because of the Confederate symbol, he has never displayed the Mississippi flag in any of the offices for elected positions he has held since 1968.
The congressman said he doesn't begrudge anyone the First Amendment right to display a Confederate flag on private property, and he even thinks it should be displayed and fully explained in museums.
He just doesn't think it should be part of the state flag: "If you know in your heart of hearts that that symbol is still racially divisive — the symbol itself represents separating the South from the North, it represented keeping people in slavery — I would say any self-respecting leader would not want his or her state represented by that kind of symbol."
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