- Associated Press - Sunday, June 28, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The racially sensitive topic of the Confederate battle emblem on the Mississippi flag was clearly was not on Republican Gov. Phil Bryant’s agenda entering this election year.

Debate is unavoidable now, because the massacre of nine worshippers at a black church in South Carolina has prompted people to re-examine the prominence given to symbols of the Old South.

In late December, Bryant sat down with The Associated Press for an interview about his priorities for the 2015 legislative session. He was asked if he sees a need to change the state flag.

The governor’s answer was a quick an unequivocal no. He said the banner does not hurt Mississippi’s image.

“I’ve been all around the world - literally, all around the world. And not once have I had a world leader - consul general, prime minister - say, ‘We’re offended,’ or, ‘We don’t like your state flag,’” Bryant said.

Asked about Mississippi residents who don’t like the flag, Bryant replied with a chuckle: “There are people in the state who are taxpayers that don’t like a lot of things.”

Mississippi has the only state flag that includes the Confederate symbol. The design has been used since 1894, and was affirmed by a nearly 2-to-1 margin of voters in a 2001 statewide election.

Since then, some black lawmakers have proposed redesigning the flag, but efforts fizzled because legislative leaders - Republican and Democrat - said voters had settled the issue.

Dynamics changed with the news that the white man charged in the slayings, Dylann Storm Roof, had posed with the Confederate battle flag in photos published online before the attack.

Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn became the state’s first top-tier Republican to say the Confederate X should be erased from the state flag. Gunn cited his Christian faith in saying the symbol had become “a point of offense.”

Mississippi voters this year are choosing a governor, seven other statewide officials and all 174 legislators.

Gunn is unopposed in his House district, so he faces less pressure than Bryant and Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who are on the statewide ballot. They have to keep conservative flag supporters happy while also acknowledging that some in the state see the Confederate emblem as an offensive reminder of slavery and segregation. Bryant and Reeves have said that if the flag is revisited, the issue should be decided by voters.

Longtime Democratic state Rep. Ed Blackmon, a member of the Legislative Black Caucus, said putting the issue on the ballot again would have the same result as in 2001 - a racially divided vote to keep the Confederate symbol. He said legislators should step up and change the flag.

“To do otherwise is an admission that we are incapable of doing our jobs on one of the more important issues of race relations in our state,” Blackmon said.

The state’s two Republican U.S. senators, Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran, had previously punted on questions about the flag, saying it’s a matter for state and not federal officials to decide. Two days after Gunn’s announcement, they reversed course and said they want a more inclusive flag design.

Cochran defeated a tea party challenger last year with the help of black voters who traditionally vote for Democrats but cast their ballots in a Republican primary runoff. The 77-year-old has said this will be his final term.

Wicker is up for re-election in 2018. He’s current chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and he would, no doubt, rather quietly raise cash for colleagues than face pesky questions about his state flag’s symbol of the Lost Cause.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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