Some black Mississippi officials say they are boycotting a regional legislative meeting that their own state is hosting this summer, to protest the Confederate battle emblem on the state flag.
The Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus is asking the Southern Legislative Conference to push Mississippi to lose its status as the last state with a flag featuring the emblem — a red field topped by a blue tilted cross dotted by 13 white stars.
The caucus chairwoman, Democratic Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes of Gulfport, said Tuesday that the boycott is designed to put pressure on Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn, who has called for redesigning the flag but has not rounded up the votes to do it.
Republican Gunn is chairman of the Southern Legislative Conference, with members from 15 states. The group holds its annual meeting July 29-Aug. 2 in Biloxi. Gunn said in a statement Tuesday that SLC "is a well-respected organization" and the meeting will "showcase the positives of Mississippi."
"It brings a great amount of economic benefit to the state, attracting nearly 1,000 people," Gunn said. "This event is a good opportunity to stand with me, someone who has not wavered in my support of changing the flag, to promote all that is good about our great state."
After black worshippers were killed in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 by an avowed white supremacist who had posed for photos holding the Confederate battle flag, Gunn said his Christian faith led him to see the symbol as "a point of offense that needs to be removed" from the Mississippi flag.
Critics say the Confederate symbol is a divisive reminder of slavery and segregation in a state with a 38 percent black population, but supporters say it represents history that should not be forgotten.
Mississippi has used the same flag since 1894, and voters chose to keep it in a 2001 election. All eight public universities and several counties and cities, including Biloxi, have stopped flying the flag because of the Confederate emblem — most of them since Charleston.
Williams-Barnes told The Associated Press that the Black Caucus has not united around a new design proposal.
"What we're really wanting is a flag that charts a different future for our state, that charts a different future for our children and that is about a vision that unites people in the state with each other as well as unites Mississippi with other states in the nation," she said.
The executive director of the Council of State Governments' Southern Legislative Conference, based in Atlanta, was traveling and did not immediately return a message.
During the legislative session that ended in March, several bills proposed redesigning the flag and some others proposed financial punishment for universities that have stopped flying it. All died because Gunn and other leaders said there was no consensus among lawmakers to either reject or protect the flag.
Fifty-one of Mississippi's 174 state lawmakers are black, and 50 of them are in the Black Caucus. Williams-Barnes said a majority of caucus members voted to boycott the regional conference, and about 80 percent are planning to take part in the boycott. She said she will ask black legislators from other states to stay away, as well.