U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker january 12, 2010
CNN  — 

The senior GOP US senator from Mississippi said Monday that the decision by his state to change its “divisive” flag with the Confederate emblem was long overdue, while praising the decision by NASCAR to ban the battle flag of the Southern secessionists at its events as “absolutely the right thing to do.”

“It’s a symbol that more and more represents a day in the past that we don’t want to celebrate,” Sen. Roger Wicker said of the Confederate battle flag. He added that NASCAR’s move to ban the flags at its events helped push the state to remove the Confederate battle cross from its flag, which stood for more than a century.

“I think it helped,” Wicker said of NASCAR’s influence on his state’s actions. “It created a bandwagon effect.”

The comments illustrate how there’s little appetite within the GOP for President Donald Trump’s embrace of a culture war over Confederate emblems – particularly in an election year amid a national debate over race relations in the United States. After Trump chided NASCAR on Monday for banning the flag at its races, Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, offered up praised for the league, saying: “The Confederate flag is not a good way to grow your business.”

A sizable number of Republicans back a plan in the Senate to remove the names of Confederate leaders from military properties, even as Trump has vowed to veto a major defense bill if it includes a provision calling for the removal of the names within three years. And on Monday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany would not say if Trump denounced the flying of the Confederate flag.

Wicker, 69, who has held his Senate seat since 2007 and whose great-great grandfather fought for the Confederacy, is not new to the flag issue. In 2015, a week after a white supremacist murdered nine people at an African American church in Charleston, Wicker said he “tossed and turned” one night and then typed out a statement publicly announcing his support for changing his state’s flag, saying it should be retired and stored in a museum, while calling for a more “unifying” flag instead.

“As the descendant of several brave Americans who fought for the Confederacy, I have not viewed Mississippi’s current state flag as offensive,” Wicker said in his 2015 statement. “However, it is clearer and clearer to me that many of my fellow citizens feel differently and that our state flag increasingly portrays a false impression of our state to others.”

“Oh yeah,” Wicker said Monday when asked if he received pushback at the time, saying voters told him: “That’s our heritage.”

“It was a risky thing to do for someone planning to run for reelection … I would say the majority of my constituents were not receptive at the time.”

The issue mostly languished in the Mississippi Legislature after Wicker’s announcement – but picked up new steam in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in Minneapolis police custody. A groundswell of calls to change the flag – from church leaders, the NCAA, sports figures and lawmakers from both parties – led the GOP-dominated Legislature to pass the measure and Mississippi’s GOP Gov. Tate Reeves to sign it, removing an emblem that had stood for more than a century and survived a 2001 voter referendum.

Wicker’s view on whether to rename military bases with Confederate names is more nuanced, however, saying in the interview that “we ought to be grateful” to soldiers like his great-great grandfather who signed an oath of allegiance to the union after the war was over.

“The flag is one thing because it really should be a symbol of unity for a state or a country,” Wicker said. “But wholesale renaming altogether is different.”

This story has been updated with further comment from Wicker.