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13 Black Mississippi Legislators Refuse to Join Southern Legislative Conference Boycott

Wanda Bingham of Laurel, Miss., left, who supports the removal of the Confederate battle emblem from the Mississippi state flag, argues with Craig Haden of Braxton, who wants to keep the emblem on the flag, at a rally at the state Capitol in Jackson on Feb. 18, 2016. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Mississippi state Rep. Greg Holloway and 12 other members of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus have decided to break with the MLBC and not boycott the annual meeting of the Southern Legislative Conference in Biloxi, Miss., through Aug. 2.

“Members of the Black Caucus who will be attending the 71st Southern Legislative Conference in Biloxi, such as myself, agree with the call to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag,” Holloway said. “I find the symbol very offensive.”

But he doesn’t think a boycott is the best way to erase the Confederate flag from Mississippi’s state flag.

“I believe that in order to make real positive change, we must have a seat at the table. Black Caucus members attending will make our protest about the flag known at the conference. I believe in confronting the issue head-on,” Holloway said in a statement.

“So along with other black leaders, black volunteers, black organizations, and black entertainers participating in the conference, I will have my voice heard to better represent my constituents,” he added.

Close to 1,300 legislators from 15 southern states were expected to attend to discuss a range of regional and national policy issues, minus the 38 members of the MLBC who decided not to attend in protest of Mississippi’s flag, which includes an image of the Confederate flag.

The MLBC has failed to get the state legislature to remove the Confederate flag from the state’s flag. Several bills that would have done that have died for lack of support, and Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves have backed a statewide vote on the question of changing the flag’s design. The MLBC and other groups calling for the removal of the Confederate flag would rather it be done by the Legislature.

The issues simmered at a slow boil until May, when a Republican legislator, Rep. Karl Oliver, on his Facebook page called for the “lynching” of people in Louisiana who supported the removal of Confederate Civil War monuments.

Oliver apologized and removed the Facebook post, but the MLBC still called for his resignation and the removal of the Confederate flag from the Mississippi banner.

“If these comments are truly not the mindset of the body, change the flag and demand the resignation of Karl Oliver,” the MLBC statement said. “Changing the flag is a direct action moving in the right direction as a collective body, and it is the right thing to do. An apology is just mere protocol; it is not enough.”

The Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus also called for a boycott of the Biloxi meeting of the Southern Leadership Caucus because of the Confederate flag’s placement on the Mississippi state flag.

“The Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus (MLBC) refuses to turn its back on the millions of people who are forced to live and function under the oppressive symbol of our state flag,” Chairwoman Sonya Williams-Barnes (D) said in a statement.

Williams-Barnes told the Clarion-Ledger black legislators from Tennessee, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama and Florida would also join the SLC boycott.

Mississippi House Speaker and SLC Chairman Philip Gunn (R) said he, too, wants to change the flag but believed it was a mistake to boycott the conference over that issue.

“[The boycott] is having absolutely no effect. I mean, we are having record attendance at this function and those who are coming, black caucus members as well, are going to participate in the racial conciliation seminar and they’re showing leadership,” Gunn told Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

The Mississippi NAACP State Conference backed the boycott and argued the SLC’s meeting could have been moved out of Biloxi to a state “where the Confederate flag does not fly.”

But Gunn said the SLC had been planning for the past two years to hold its 71st Annual Meeting in Biloxi, and when the MLBC boycott was announced it was too late to change the location.

Mississippi state Rep. Steve Holland (D), who took part in a protest to show support for the SLC boycott, said that if Rep. Gunn doesn’t like the Confederate symbol on the state’s flag he should push legislation to change it.

“[Legislation] hasn’t even come out of committee,” said Holland. “I would be glad to vote on it on the floor of the house.”

However, Holland also told the Sun-Herald there are more important issues facing the Mississippi Legislature.

“I’m interested in good public schools, good roads, everybody having an equal opportunity in this state. I am for funding our college system and our community college system,” Holland said. “Those are the important issues to me.”