Updated 5:44 p.m. | After last week’s shooting at a black church in Charleston prompted South Carolina’s public officials at the highest levels to demand the Confederate flag at the state capitol be taken down, Rep. Bennie Thompson hopes such calls will lead to a meaningful re-evaluation of his state’s flag, too.
As the only black Democratic member of the Mississippi delegation, Thompson is getting ready to force a House floor vote on the issue as early as this week. The question: Should Congress remove the Mississippi flag from its place among the 49 other state flags that line the walls of the tunnel connecting the Capitol to the Rayburn House Office Building?
The flag’s design — which contains the “Southern Cross” of the Confederacy in the upper-left corner — was the subject of debate long before the June 17 massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Thompson, who has been in Congress for 11 terms, has never displayed the state flag outside his congressional office. He’s fought against the design for decades, supporting unsuccessful state-level votes to redesign it and fruitless lawsuits to force Mississippi to take action.
Though members have been rapidly changing their minds on this matter over an emotional few days, Thompson’s planned privileged resolution, which introduced late Wednesday, faces an uphill climb.
Privileged resolutions offered by the minority almost always fail, but House rules dictate the chamber has to take the proposal up within a certain number of legislative days after filing. Republican leaders could just make a motion to table, or kill, the measure — the typical reaction when a member of the minority party tries to insert new legislative business into the schedule out of turn.
But Thompson can expect overwhelming support from Democrats during an inevitable roll call vote, as well as from members of the Congressional Black Caucus who were briefed on the resolution at their regularly scheduled Wednesday meeting. When Thompson introduced the resolution on the floor Wednesday evening, about a dozen CBC members sat behind him.
This could force Republicans into a tricky political calculus: Vote to keep Mississippi’s flag flying in the hallway, or vote it out in a blow to states’ rights.
In any event, it would mark the first opportunity in recent history to get members of Congress to record their stances on Confederate imagery’s place on government property.
In an interview with CQ Roll Call Tuesday night, Thompson couldn’t predict what would happen.
“The common thing I’m used to hearing, going into this debate is, ‘It’s heritage, not hate,’” Thompson said. “Well, to the average person, it is difficult to get them to understand, ‘What heritage are you talking about? Are you talking about slavery? Are you talking about seceding from the union?’ … They’re just in denial.”
Thompson suggested the church shooting was something of a perfect storm for Americans to start demanding politicians reverse course: “Just a whole dynamic of it, you’d had to be a terrible person not to feel bad because of that circumstance and you also feel, is there something we can do to prevent this kind of attitude from prevailing?”
“I’m an eternal optimist,” Thompson continued, “that given the right circumstances, people will do better, and some of those circumstances are not always positive circumstances. … So I think now you get the feeling that, you know, we just got to do something. I mean, this is just not who we are.’”
South Carolina Republicans in Congress — many of them former colleagues of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, the slain pastor of the Emanuel AME Church — have struck a delicate balance over the last week.
Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C., said it was a “difficult” decision to ultimately stand with GOP Gov. Nikki R. Haley and other colleagues, including Republican Rep. Mark Sanford, who represents Charleston, and the delegation’s only two black members — Republican Sen. Tim Scott and Assistant House Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn on the flag issue.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., offered an unusually candid statement.
“My initial reaction to calls to summarily remove the flag was that such an action would be tantamount to admitting what is not true for many South Carolinians: that the flag is a symbol of hate,” he said. “But in speaking with so many people over the course of the last few days, it has become clear that this flag does in fact mean different things to different people in our state. And I blame myself for not listening closely enough to people who see the flag differently than I do.”
Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, was more cynical.
“It represents an embarrassing history for this country and taking down the flag is long overdue,” he told CQ Roll Call. “African-Americans have been demanding for years the flag be taken down and it’s fallen on deaf ears. It is regrettable that it has taken such tragic event that has forced them to do it.”
Butterfield also said he was “ready for South Carolina political leaders to talk about substance,” like expanding the state’s Medicaid program.
Thompson similarly turned the discussion to Mississippi’s standing.
“People pretend, ‘Oh, no, everything’s fine,’ and then you look at the socioeconomic standing in the state, you look at every social indicator in our state, and we’re still on the bottom. So you can’t say we’re doing better. I think the symbol that this flag represents in the mind of so many people is just patently offensive.”
Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Monday the flag should be left to the voters, but changed tack less than 48 hours later, saying that it belongs in a museum.
Thompson said in a follow-up conversation with CQ Roll Call on Wednesday he was told of Wicker’s decision a few minutes before an official statement was released, and predicted the other state’s other Republican Senator, Thad Cochran, would soon join in calls for a new Mississippi flag. Indeed, minutes after Thompson issued this forecast, Cochran blasted out an email statement proclaiming it was his “personal hope that the state government will consider changing the state flag.”
On Tuesday, Thompson’s three GOP colleagues in the House were staying silent. Rep. Gregg Harper told CQ Roll Call Tuesday night he would be putting out a statement soon, but by Wednesday afternoon there was still no explanation on his website or social media platforms.
Thompson didn’t know if or when he’d get their support, on the floor or at least for engaging in a meaningful conversation on the subject.
“I have no problems trying to work through whatever it would take to fix this,” he said. “There’s hope.”