No one was talking seriously about changing Mississippi’s official flag when the state legislature convened its 2020 session in early January.
The thought was that, as in most sessions dating back to 1988, bills would be filed to change the banner, which prominently displays the Confederate battle emblem in its design, but those proposals would suffer a quiet death on deadline day when committee chairs opted not to call them up for consideration.
And that, indeed, is what occurred in early March when the bills missed the legislative deadline to be passed out of committee for consideration before the full chamber. Yet, about four months later, the Mississippi Legislature did pass historic legislation on the weekend of June 27-28 to take down the banner that was cursed as racist and divisive by many but has been hailed as a symbol of Southern heritage by others.
Senator Angela Turner Ford (D), chair of the 53-member strong Legislative Black Caucus, said she was not expecting any action on the flag during the 2020 session.
“Bills had been filed like in the previous sessions,” she said. “This was an issue where action occurred quickly. I was in support of change and certainly other members of the caucus were as well.”
The Time Was Right
After failing to change the flag for at least three decades, when legislators did choose to act, they did so not only quickly but also the hard way. Because of the lateness in the session, it required a supermajority two-thirds vote of both chambers to suspend the rules to take up the bill to change the flag.
In many ways, it was a remarkable legislative feat.
“Quite frankly, I did not think we could get the two-thirds vote,” said Representative Bryant Clark (D). “I thought there were the votes to come back and do it in January [when it would require only a simple majority] but that part surprised me.”
Clark said he had filed bills to change the flag every year since he was elected to the House in 2004 to succeed his father, Robert Clark, representing rural District 47, which borders on the Mississippi Delta. The elder Clark was the first African American elected to the Mississippi Legislature since the 1800s and served his final three terms as the House pro tem.
The younger Clark, acknowledging the long struggle, said he never lost faith that eventually the flag would change and sensed the momentum for change growing—just not enough to garner a two-thirds majority in the legislature.
“It was just time,” said Lieutenant Governor Delbert Hosemann (R), who presides over the Senate. “You know people started several weeks ago talking about this and the momentum built until we had 71% of the Senate vote for this. It’s a tremendous vote when you looked at that.”
While Hosemann supported the effort, the genesis for the change began in the House and with events outside the legislature. In separate interviews, Clark, House Pro Tem Jason White (R) and House Minority Leader Robert Johnson (D) all called the events leading up to the change a “perfect storm.”
No doubt, the death of George Floyd, an African American man, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, drawing national protests demanding racial justice, shined a new light on the Mississippi flag, the last in the nation to display the Confederate symbol.
If it had not been for the pandemic, we would have been home by the time George Floyd happened. But because we were still in session because of the pandemic, we were able to do something. — House Pro Tem Jason White (R)
Soon, members of the state’s business community; religious groups, such as the influential and socially conservative Mississippi Baptist Convention; athletic associations, including the Southeastern Conference and NCAA; and public university administrators, coaches and athletes were calling for the Legislature to change the banner. All eight state public universities already had stopped flying the state flag.
“If it had not been for the pandemic, we would have been home by the time George Floyd happened,” White said. “But because we were still in session because of the pandemic, we were able to do something.”
House Speaker Philip Gunn, left, Mississippi Department of Archives and History Director Katie Blount, and Lieutenant Governor Delbert Hosemann prepare to deliver the retired state flags to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum on July 1, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today
Coronavirus, Protests Spur Change
The legislative session was scheduled to end in early May, but a coronavirus-induced recess resulted in lawmakers being in session later than anticipated. During that time, a bipartisan group of House members quietly began discussing the flag issue. The Republicans in the group were primarily new members. Significantly, House Speaker Philip Gunn (R) gave the group his blessing and pledged to help.
Gunn has been perhaps the most prominent Republican politician on the state level to endorse changing the flag. A Baptist deacon, he did so in 2015 after the shooting death of nine African American churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., at the hands of a white supremacist.
Gunn, however, has been criticized at times by supporters of changing the flag who said he wasn’t expending enough political capital on the issue. But during the month of June, he and Hosemann, who evolved from supporting a vote of the people to change the flag to believing it should be done by the legislature, worked tirelessly to ensure the votes were in place to pass the legislation.
“I think most of them [House members] came to their own conclusion,” Gunn said when asked how he changed the hearts and minds of his caucus. “And they began to see how this image is negatively affecting our state. ... We’ve all seen the people that have come out in recent weeks.”
Still in early June, days before a large protest centered on social justice in Jackson, the state’s capital, Johnson said Gunn told him privately that he believed 12 House Republicans would vote to change the flag—far short of the numbers needed.
By the end of June, on the pivotal vote to garner the two-thirds needed to suspend the rules, the measure passed the House 84-35, with 38 Republicans voting to suspend the rules and 35 voting not to. All 44 Democrats and both independents voted to suspend the rules.
Our state is at a point in its history that there is no choice but to retire its current state flag. The impending economic, social and cultural pressures are going to create a storm that this state cannot weather. — Representative Nick Bain (R)
“Our state is at a point in its history that there is no choice but to retire its current state flag,” said Representative Nick Bain (R), echoing the thoughts of many Republican legislators who previously might have been reluctant to vote for the change. “The impending economic, social and cultural pressures are going to create a storm that this state cannot weather.”
White told House members before the vote, “It’s time we had a state flag that is in harmony with our founding ideas.”
In the Senate, 14 of the chamber’s 36 Republicans voted against suspending the rules, while all 16 Democrats voted to suspend them.
Let the People Decide?
For much of this time, first-term Governor Tate Reeves (R) argued against the legislature changing the flag, saying the decision should be left to a vote of the people. But late in the process, as the legislative leadership neared locking up the votes to change the flag, Reeves said he would not veto the legislation because it already had obtained a veto-proof two-thirds majority. And on the morning before the vote, he went a step further to commit to signing the bill to bring closure to an issue that he said was consuming the legislative process.
Days later he signed the historic legislation in a low-key ceremony in the governor’s mansion.
The arguments during much of June were like those made by Reeves, focusing not on the merits of the flag’s symbolism, but on the fact that there should be a vote of the people.
“I have repeatedly warned my fellow Mississippians that any attempt to change the current Mississippi flag by a few politicians in the Capitol will be met with contempt,” Reeves said at one point. “If the leadership in 2001 had not put it on the ballot, then the conversation might be different.”
In the 2001 election, led by Ronnie Musgrove, the state’s last Democratic governor, 64% voiced support for maintaining the old flag. Recent polls indicated that support for changing the flag was gaining momentum—even garnering majority support in one poll conducted by the powerful Mississippi Economic Council. Still, many argued that it would be risky to hold an election, placing Mississippi in the spotlight on a divisive issue and facing the prospect that changing the flag might be difficult for decades to come if the old one should prevail.
In the end, the approved legislation still calls for an election, but the Confederate battle emblem will not be on the ballot. The legislation establishes a nine-member commission, with the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker making three appointments each. The commission will recommend a design that must include the words “In God we trust” but that cannot include the Confederate battle emblem. The design will be on the November ballot.
If it garners a majority vote, it will become the official state flag. If voters reject the design, the commission will reconvene to develop another proposal that will be on the ballot in 2021. Opponents of the bill argued that the process could go on indefinitely.
Many say, however, that even if the process takes a while, the old flag no longer will fly over the state.
The day after the governor signed the legislation, the flag was removed from the Capitol in a solemn ceremony officiated by the Department of Archives and History. Gunn and Hosemann, as the legislature’s presiding officers, participated. Reeves did not. He was holding a press conference on COVID-19.
Bobby Harrison is a senior capitol reporter for Mississippi Today.
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