A top Mississippi lawmaker said Monday that the Confederate battle emblem is offensive and needs to be removed from the state flag.
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."
Mississippi and Tennessee officials are grappling with whether to retain Old South symbols, even as South Carolina leaders are pushing to remove a Confederate battle flag that flies outside the statehouse there.
The massacre of nine worshippers at a black church in South Carolina last week renewed public debate about the Confederate battle flag. The white suspect, Dylann Storm Roof, appeared in photos holding the banner.
Mississippi voters decided by a 2-to-1 margin in 2001 to keep the state flag that has been used since 1894. It features the Confederate battle emblem — a blue X with 13 stars, over a red field. According to NPR, it is the only state flag that still enshrines the symbol since Georgia changed its flag in 2003.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant on Monday repeated his long-held position that the state should keep the flag as is.
USA Today reported that an online petition seeking to remove the Confederate symbol from the flag has gathered more than 6,250 signatures since it was posed on the weekend.
Democratic Sen. Kenny Wayne Jones of Canton, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said the Confederate emblem is a "symbol of hatred" often associated with racial violence. Jones said the flag represents the power structure's resistance to change during the 1960s and '70s, when civil rights activists were pushing to dismantle segregation and expand voting rights.
At the Tennessee Capitol in Nashville, a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and an early Ku Klux Klan leader, has been displayed in an alcove outside the Senate chamber for decades.
Democratic and Republican leaders are calling for the bust to be removed. Craig Fitzhugh, the state House Democratic leader, said it should go to the archives or a museum and be replaced in the Capitol by a statue of Lois DeBerry, an African-American who became the first female speaker pro tempore of the Tennessee House. Women and minorities are underrepresented in government symbols, Fitzhugh wrote.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press