Last week, Gov. Phil Bryant said, "College students react a lot emotionally," in response to the University of Mississippi student senate's decision to bring down the state flag on campus, before the university administration confirmed their decision. Trip Burns/File Photo
The University of Mississippi removed the state flag on its Oxford campus on Oct. 26 because the banner contains the Confederate battle emblem, which some see as a painful reminder of slavery and segregation.
Interim Chancellor Morris Stocks ordered the flag to be lowered and said it was being sent to the university's archives.
The action came days after the student senate, the faculty senate and other groups adopted a student-led resolution calling for removal of the banner from campus.
"As Mississippi's flagship university, we have a deep love and respect for our state," Stocks said in a statement Oct. 26. "Because the flag remains Mississippi's official banner, this was a hard decision. I understand the flag represents tradition and honor to some. But to others, the flag means that some members of the Ole Miss family are not welcomed or valued."
Last week at a press conference in Hattiesburg, Gov. Phil Bryant said he did not know "a whole lot" about the flag situation at the University of Mississippi.
"I think college students react a lot emotionally," Bryant said. "I don't think they have any legal authority whatsoever to determine what the state flag is and where it flies, particularly over public buildings."
Bryant's office did not release a follow-up statement on Monday before press time.
In June, Bryant said the vast majority of Mississippians voted to keep the state flag and that a special session of the Legislature would not be called to change it. Mississippi voters decided by a 2-to-1 margin in 2001 to keep it.
More than 200 people joined a remove-the-flag rally Oct. 16 on the UM campus, which the university chapter of the NAACP sponsored.
UM has struggled with Old South symbolism for decades. In 1962, deadly riots broke out when James Meredith was enrolled as the first black student, under court order. Administrators have tried to distance the school from Confederate symbols. Sports teams are still called the Rebels, but the university several years ago retired the Colonel Rebel mascot, a white-haired old man some thought resembled a plantation owner. The university also banned sticks in the football stadium nearly 20 years ago, which eliminated most Confederate battle flags that fans carried.
"The University of Mississippi community came to the realization years ago that the Confederate battle flag did not represent many of our core values, such as civility and respect for others," Stocks said in the statement Monday. "Since that time, we have become a stronger and better university. We join other leaders in our state who are calling for a change in the state flag."
Since 1894, the Mississippi flag has had the Confederate battle emblem in the upper left corner—a blue X with 13 white stars, over a field of red. Residents chose to keep the flag during a 2001 statewide vote, but since then, public sentiment on the state flag is changing.
Several Mississippi cities and counties have stopped flying the state flag since the June massacre of nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston, S.C. Police said the attack was racially motivated. The white man charged in the slayings had posed with a Confederate battle flag in photos posted online before the massacre.
Mississippi's three historically black universities have stopped flying the flag, and the city of Jackson has not flown it for many years.
Some citizens have not waited for Legislative intervention to change or keep the state flag. Two ballot initiatives are on file in the secretary of state's office: one to keep the current one and another to take all symbols of the Confederacy off of the state flag. Initiative 54 is a petition to keep the current flag that was adopted in 1894 as the permanent state flag by Constitutional amendment. Initiative 55 proposes a change to language on the Mississippi Constitution that says, "The flag of the State of Mississippi shall not contain or include any reference to the Confederate army's battle flag or to the Confederacy."
Back in June, House Speaker Philip Gunn became the first top-tier Republican to call for a change in the flag, which has had the Confederate symbol in the upper left corner since Reconstruction.
"We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us," Gunn, a leader in his local Baptist church, said in a statement. "As a Christian, I believe our state's flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed. We need to begin having conversations about changing Mississippi's flag."
Members of Mississippi's congressional delegation spoke out against the flag following the Charleston shootings.
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat and the only black member of Mississippi's congressional delegation, said he does not display the Mississippi flag in his office because he does not want to offend constituents.
"This flag is not just some piece of cloth that bears no importance; it is the physical manifestation of a time of hate, oppression and slavery that split this country at its seams," Thompson told the Associated Press in June. "It also serves as a barrier around the entire state of Mississippi telling everyone else in this country that progress is not welcomed here.
In June, Sen. Roger Wicker called for Mississippi to change the flag.
"After reflection and prayer, I now believe our state flag should be put in a museum and replaced by one that is more unifying to all Mississippians," Wicker said in a news release. "As the descendant of several brave Americans who fought for the Confederacy, I have not viewed Mississippi's current state flag as offensive. However, it is clearer and clearer to me that many of my fellow citizens feel differently and that our state flag increasingly portrays a false impression of our state to others."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.