By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – State Rep. William Shirley, R-Quitman, strolled to the well of the House Wednesday, silently held up a state flag and a white flag of surrender and then retreated to his desk in the back of the chamber.
With that, the great flag debate of the 2017 session appears to be over, although the issue will surely return in future sessions.
Over the last several days, Shirley had tried multiple times to amend legislation to force Mississippi’s eight public universities to fly the state flag, which includes the Confederate battle emblem as part of its design.
After the session Wednesday, Shirley refused to talk to reporters.
But earlier in the day, Shirley opted to not engage in the flag fight one last time during the 2017 session. He passed on the opportunity to try and add the flag language to the bills funding the institutions of higher learning when Appropriations Chair John Read, R-Gauter, moved to table the motions to reconsider the bills.
Shirley did not speak against Read’s motions, which passed with no debate and no opposition on a voice vote.
Those two bills appear to be the last chance Shirley had to try to pass his flag amendment in the House during the 2017 session.
Shirley was able to pass by a narrow 57-56 vote an amendment in one bill last week that would have prevented the University of Southern Mississippi and Mississippi State University from providing tax exemptions to companies that build student housing on their campuses. But the House leadership, which opposed Shirley’s amendment efforts, then killed that bill, saying there are other vehicles alive in the legislative process to allow the schools to provide the tax exemption.
After that vote, the leadership, including Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, who supports changing the controversial state flag, were able to defeat Shirley’s other efforts to force the universities to display the flag.
Shirley has repeatedly said his effort is not about the design of the flag, but the fact that schools that receive state support should fly the official banner of Mississippi.
He said at one point he did not care if the flag was “a pink, polka-dotted elephant,” the universities should fly it. The eight public universities, numerous local governments and school districts do not fly the flag that some say is perceived as a symbol of oppression against African Americans.
Others say the banner merely is a symbol of the state’s heritage and overwhelmingly was approved as the official flag of the state by Mississippi voters in a 2001 election.
When Shirley started his amendment effort, Sonya Williams Barnes, D-Gulfport, chair of the Legisative Black Caucus, said the current flag and Shirley’s amendment hurt the image of the state.
“It is time for Mississippi to make a change,” she said. “Race relations in our state are at an all-time high. … It is also imperative that we as legislators remember that the entire nation has its eyes on us as we continuously make legislation that hurts economic development in our state. We ask that leadership join us in our efforts to give Mississippi a face of progress, prosperity and respect.”
In the end, Shirley’s efforts were defeated by a coalition that included nearly all the House Democrats, including members of the Black Caucus, and a handful of Republicans, many of those in leadership positions.