JACKSON, Miss. — The public has already submitted about 600 proposals for a new Mississippi flag without the Confederate battle emblem, the director of the state Department of Archives and History said Wednesday.
"People are really engaged," Katie Blount said at the first meeting of commissioners in charge of designing a new state flag.
Mississippi recently retired the last state banner in the U.S. with the Confederate emblem that's widely condemned as racist.
One of the commissioners, former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Reuben Anderson, said seeing the rebel-themed flag in courtrooms has sent a signal that he and other African American residents don't belong.
"I and thousands of Mississippians have been stiff-armed by that flag," Anderson said.
State law says the new flag cannot include the Confederate emblem and must have the phrase, "In God We Trust."
The law also created the nine-member commission, but the group only has six members so far. House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann appointed commissioners last week. Gov. Tate Reeves still had not appointed his by Wednesday.
During a news conference hours after the commission met, Republican Reeves said he has been busy with the coronavirus pandemic.
"I've been a little bit tied up," Reeves said. "We've got serious hospital capacity issues in this state. We've got people dying every single day. And so while there (are) certainly other issues that exist out there, we will make our appointments whenever we choose to make those appointments."
Reeves — who signed the bill that created the commission — also said he doesn't think legislators have the constitutional power to call a meeting of an executive branch agency.
A nine-member commission needs a majority of at least five members to be present, in person or online, to conduct business.
Commissioners said Wednesday that they will accept proposed flag designs from the public until early August and they intend to adopt a proposed design by Sept. 2, which is 12 days earlier than their original deadline. Election officials have said early September gives them more time to prepare the Nov. 3 ballot.
The commission will put a single design on the ballot. If voters accept it, that will become the new flag. If voters reject it, the commission will draw a new design following the same two rules, and that will go on the ballot later.
Although Reeves signed the bill, he has said for years that if the 1894 state flag was going to be reconsidered, it should be decided by a statewide election. People who voted in a 2001 referendum chose to keep the flag with the Confederate emblem in the upper left corner. An alternative would have replaced the Confederate symbol with a blue square topped by white stars representing Mississippi as the 20th state.
Legislators filed bills for years to change the flag, but those died because leaders said they couldn't get consensus for change. Momentum changed dramatically in June, amid widespread protests over racial injustice. Young activists and older leaders from business, religion, education and sports urged legislators to ditch a symbol that many said portrayed Mississippi as backward.
TJ Taylor, a 32-year-old attorney and staff adviser for the House speaker, is the youngest of the commissioners. He said Wednesday that he feels the weight of the responsibility.
"I think it's amazing that the young people are using their voice and taking a stand on this," Taylor said after the meeting. "That helped give traction and helped us get to this point. I'm glad to be a part of that."
Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.