Maisie Brown has heard people argue that removing an emblem of the Confederacy from Mississippi’s state flag meant little—that, in a state still rife with systemic racism, it was nothing more than a symbolic change with no substance. She disagrees.
“I think the flag change matters, and if the flag change really didn’t matter, I don’t think they would have taken so long to change it,” the 19-year-old Black activist who, in June 2020, was one of the BLM Sip organizers who led a massive march on the governor’s mansion in Jackson. “This argument is kind of like when people say, ‘Oh, voting doesn’t matter.’ Then why do they make it so hard?”
The Confederate-themed banner that flew atop flagpoles and government buildings for 126 years had power, Brown said, and it communicated, “I’m a nobody.”
“The flag wasn’t changed because we thought it was ugly. The flag wasn’t changed because it got old. The flag was changed because it was racist. I don’t understand how much simpler we can make it,” she continued.
“And if we had just said the flag doesn’t matter, how can we expect to actually tackle real issues if we don’t address the small things first? … What would have made you think we could do anything else that involves racial justice in Mississippi if we can’t even get a piece of cloth down from a flagpole? It’s symbolic, but it signals the first step in what’s possible.”
‘The Cover Of A Book We Haven’t Even Opened’
The Black Lives Matter march Brown and other Black Mississippi young people with BLM Sip organized on June 6, 2020, proved to be the largest protest in the Magnolia State since the Civil Rights Movement, drawing people of all ages, races and ethnicities. But changing the state flag was only one of a list of demands they declared outside the gates of the 180-year-old governor’s mansion.
Brown was one of three organizers behind the march who spoke with Mississippi Free Press State Reporter Nick Judin for this story following the one-year anniversary of the Legislature’s historic vote to change the flag on June 28, 2020.
BLM Sip organizer Timothy Young, 22, said he wants people to know that their work did not stop after the crowd dispersed on June 6, 2020, or after the state flag came down several weeks later.
“One thing that I had a very huge issue with originally post-protest was that no one actually reached out to activists that everyone wanted a story from to ask how we were progressing with our activism,” Young said. “What were we doing after that protest?”
Moments after stepping off the stage, Young received an offer to interview for a position at Mississippi Votes—a youth-led voting-rights organization that works to empower young voters and increase access to democracy in the Magnolia State. He now works there as a digital content creator.
“We push for felony voting-rights restoration. Part of that flag and the reason we had such a big issue with it is that it didn’t represent all of Mississippi. And a flag so high on top of a Capitol Building which is supposed to be for the people, I felt and we all felt that it should actually represent all of us,” he told the Mississippi Free Press.
The flag was the beginning of change, though. “Well, we should talk about felony rights restoration. There’s a huge population in Mississippi who lose their right to vote after serving time, after giving their just due to society. And now they have to apply through a very shady process to begin with—apply for their rights to be restored.”
In 1890, white supremacist lawmakers wrote felony voter disenfranchisement into the state constitution, singling out certain crimes that they believed Black residents were more likely to commit or, at least, get convicted for committing. It was part of a larger effort to rollback Black gains alongside other now-defunct Jim Crow voting provisions like poll taxes and literacy tests. The felony disenfranchisement provision remains, though, preventing people with certain prior felony convictions from ever voting again even after serving time.
The felony disenfranchisement provision still stands, though, barring thousands of Mississippians from ever voting again even after serving their time. The number of Black Mississippians who are permanently barred from voting because of that law today exceeds the margin by which Republican Tate Reeves beat Democrat Jim Hood in the 2019 election for governor. Restoring a person’s voting rights requires a literal act of the Legislature—and lawmakers grant suffrage back to only a small number.
“When there’s things like timber larceny on there for stealing a certain amount of wood, and for the rest of your life you have no say in Mississippi’s government—it reminded me a lot of that flag,” Young said.
“That flag was put there to intimidate a certain type of person. … When we submitted 20-plus African Americans to get their voting rights restored and (the Legislature) only picked one, I start to feel a way. I start to realize we have all these polarizing conversations about a flag, but the flag was the cover of a book that we haven’t even opened. You can’t tell me that the story that we’re pitching is a different story and the only thing you’ve changed is the cover. It bewilders me.”
Taylor Turnage, another BLM Sip organizer, took the book-cover analogy in another direction.
“Stick with the flag as the cover of the book. Now, I see the hype for the sales of the book was the citizens saying, ‘Hey, we want this changed.’ And it kind of feels like the government bought the book because they liked the hype of it and put it aside when they got home,” she said. “They never looked at it again. They said, ‘Ok, we gave y’all y’all’s new flag, but that is it.’ It’s like nothing has been really done or has really changed for the better.”
‘Like Giving A Duck A Cookie For Quacking’
The young activists’ frustrations over legislative inaction, or even actions they see as harmful, is joined by a sense that some in the media have oversimplified the meaning of the 2020 march and the subsequent flag change. They also feel that too many news stories have emphasized the actions of lawmakers who agreed to make change at the last minute over decades of work by Black activists and lawmakers over a series of decades.
Since the old flag came down, state and national media outlets alike have heaped much credit on white lawmakers like Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn. The Republican speaker first endorsed changing the flag in 2015 (after declining to discuss the issue with the Clarion-Ledger a year earlier), but did not mount a serious push until weeks after the 2020 march amid the national race reckoning last summer.
Mississippi Today’s five-part series on Gunn’s efforts to change the flag even noted that four white Republican lawmakers preceded Gunn in pushing for actions on changing the flag in 2020: Reps. Missy McGee of Hattiesburg, Kent McCarty of Hattiesburg, Jansen Owen of Poplarville and Sam Creekmore of New Albany.
“It feels like such a disservice to depict the whole movement behind Philip Gunn. I’m at the point where I don’t want to see this become erasure of the Black and Brown people who had a hand in this,” Young said. “Because when we look at Mississippi in totality, it’s a lot bigger than white men. When we look at the flag coming down, white men had the opportunity to do something way earlier. It took people in the streets. It took the SEC wanting to pull out in Mississippi to get the ball rolling. It felt like we had to hold people’s hands.”
Young said that Kylin Hill, the Black Mississippi State football player who in June 2020 threatened to quit playing and leave the state changed its flag, is someone who comes to mind when he thinks of people who made meaningful contributions to the fight for a new flag.
“Kylin Hill put aside something that meant something to him, and that was football, for the sake of the actual conversation. When I think about the core organizers of BLM Sip, a lot of us put our credibility on the line,” Young said. He and Turnage both said the group received threats and that false rumors about the march spread on social media.
“So it’s not just a, ‘Oh, we’re going to go out here just for fun because we don’t like the governor or we don’t like our government and we’re going to say we want you to change the flag.’ That’s not it,” she said. “This flag fight has been going on way longer than June 6, 2020. And it was more than us, it was more than the five of us who were on that stage on June 6. I feel like it was the community, and what I mean by the community—not just the Jackson community—it was people who came all over Mississippi. I feel like it was the ancestors who put their lives on the line for it.”
“I feel like everybody is trying to turn it into what one person was responsible for the flag being changed. There is no one person who was responsible for the flag being changed,” Turnage continued. “It was thousands of people over decades who were responsible for the flag being changed. And no, those people did not look like Philip Gunn. They did not. They looked like me. They looked like Timothy. They looked like Aunjanue Ellis. They looked like Maisie Brown. They looked like Calvert White. They did not look like Philip Gunn.”
Black activists and lawmakers began pushing for a new state flag decades ago when white lawmakers, including Democrats and Republicans, steered clear of the issue. Maisie Brown wrote a column when she was 14 demanding that the flag change, which she read at the Mississippi and U.S. Capitols. Now, she wants greater recognition for the Black legislators, like Sen. Hillman Frazier, who fought on the issue mostly alone for years before it became “popular” among white lawmakers who did not take a position until threats of economic sanctions poured into the state.
“They’ve had the opportunity to do the right thing for years. … I know that money talks, money walks, and it’s just like, why are we patting legislators on the back for doing what they’re supposed to do? It’s like giving a duck a cookie for quacking,” she said.
‘We Forget They’re People’
Since June 2020, Brown said, the state has made progress on some issues the activist raised beyond the flag. The state was just entering its first summer wave of COVID-19 at the time, and the activist called for public-health measures to protect students at the state’s public schools, universities and colleges, including its historically Black colleges and universities.
At the time, COVID-19 was still heavily disproportionately affecting Black Mississippians. But public-health measures at schools, targeted outreach to Black communities and greater compliance with public health guidance among Black Mississippians helped reverse the trend by summer’s end.
Brown said she gives Mississippi credit for being one of the first states to offer the COVID-19 vaccine to prisoners. In the early vaccination phase, white Mississippians far outpaced Black Mississippians in vaccination rates. But a sustained effort by both community activists like Brown and the Mississippi State Department of Health, which included outreach to Black churches and increasing vaccination options in rural parts of the state like the Delta, has helped close the gap.
The young activist said she was also relieved to see the Legislature pass a new law in the spring lessening the severity of the state’s harsh parole laws earlier this year—one of several small criminal-justice reforms the state has made in recent years. The state’s prison population has decreased slightly from highs it reached in the 2000s following the 1995 adoption of a raft of “tough-on-crime” laws.
But key parts of the 1990s changes remain, including the extreme sentencing laws for habitual offenders which put some in prison for life for offenses like marijuana possession. As with the voter-disenfranchisement law, Black Mississippians bear the brunt of those policies.
“I do think (the parole changes) will have a positive impact,” Brown told the Mississippi Free Press. “I think we’re headed in the right direction as far as prison reform goes to a certain extent, but I think that even outside of sentencing, which is very important, I do think we have to take a closer look at the conditions of these prisons and how we’re treating the people while they’re inside. It’s extremely important to get people out as fast as possible. I do think we need to take a closer look at how they’re being treated while they’re on the inside. I don’t think the prisoners have as many advocates, if at all, as they deserve.
“We have to take a close look at how we’re treating these people—we forget they’re people—while they’re incarcerated.”
Mississippi’s prison population more than doubled in the 2000s following the 1995 laws after the state’s overall crime rates had already begun to decline. 62% of Mississippians in prison today are Black.
‘It’s A Placeholder’
Other issues the activists raised during last year’s march went unaddressed, such as their call for the resignation of Petal, Miss., Mayor Hal Marx. After a video of Minnesota Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck and killing him kicked off the wave of Black Lives Matter protests last summer, Marx tweeted a false and baseless claim.
“If you say you can’t breathe, you’re breathing. Most likely that man died of overdose or heart attack. Video doesn’t show his resistance that got him in that position. Police being crucified,” Marx wrote.
Despite the Petal Board of Aldermen unanimously demanding his resignation and hundreds of protesters showing up outside Petal’s city hall to do the same, Marx declared that he would “never surrender to the mob mentality.” He served out his final year as mayor and his successor, Tony Ducker, took over on June 29, 2021—just over two months after a Minneapolis jury found Chauvin guilty of Floyd’s murder.
In Mississippi, though, another demand the BLM Sip organizers made has gone unheeded after the Mississippi attorney general’s office declined to pursue charges against a Columbus police officer who fatally shot Ricky Ball, a Black man, in 2015.
“We might have got the flag changed, but since the flag changed, what else has been changed?” Taylor Turnage told the Mississippi Free Press. “So Derek Chauvin got convicted, he got 22-and-a-half years. People are sitting in jail on marijuana charges longer than 22-and-a-half years.”
Timothy Young shared a similar sentiment.
“Derek Chauvin’s case, him being convicted, still didn’t change the fact that an innocent man lost his life in the middle of a street. A flag coming down doesn’t give back the man’s life who we organized the protest for. It’s a placeholder. And I feel like there’s more work to be done,” he said.
Young told Nick Judin, who first interviewed him during last year’s protest for another publication, that he and the other organizers appreciated being seen “as bigger than the moment.”
“A lot of other people just wanted to erase any further aspirations for any of us, and it’s just much bigger than that. And there’s a lot more at stake for Mississippi that can be changed that doesn’t stop with the flag,” he said.
The activist cited online voter registration, which is an option in 40 other states, as one small but significant change he would like to see the Mississippi Legislature make. Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson, a Republican, has voiced support for the idea, but the Legislature did not take the issue up earlier this year.
“So many other people have it. It’s been proven to work, but of course having a system that actually works is the last thing on Mississippi’s mind,” Young said.
He also wants an end to felony disenfranchisement for people upon their release from prison and for the state to recognize voting rights as a “natural born right” that cannot be taken away.
“It’s not something that we can pick and choose who we decide to give it to, or decide to restore someone else’s,” he said.
‘Change Starts Young’
Turnage had another issue in mind, too, that she wants tackled. She wants the state to revamp its approach to education when it comes to the way K-12 schools teach about the history of race. She recalled how, as a Black child in grade school, she had to learn about Confederates like Gen. Robert E. Lee from white teachers who “would talk about them as if they were some sort of heroes.”
After the end of Reconstruction, white supremacist leaders and civic groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy pursued a campaign to erase the true history of the Civil War. Textbooks were crafted that taught the “lost cause” narrative, framing the South’s leaders as heroes and its fight, not as one to preserve slavery, but as one to secure “state’s rights.” But Mississippi’s 1861 Declaration of Secession clearly identified its desire to preserve slavery as the core issue of the Civil War.
Even today, some white teachers in Mississippi continue to teach the lost-cause narrative or, at least, a whitewashed version of slavery and the era of Jim Crow segregation that followed. At the same time, many white conservative leaders and media outlets nationwide have spent months whipping up a hysteria among white parents over claims of “critical race theory” being taught in public schools.
“Critical race theory” refers to legal theory most often taught in law schools, but those promoting fears about it in K-12 curriculums have begun using it as a catch-all for any classroom lessons about systemic racism or even about the history of slavery and segregation.
One teacher in Tennessee became the target of angry white parents after teaching about Ruby Bridges—the young Black girl who, in 1960, had to be escorted to her elementary school in New Orleans amid outrage from white parents who did not want a Black child attending school with their children.
Some Mississippi Republicans have jumped on the anti-CRT bandwagon and joined calls to ban it from being taught in public schools, even though no K-12 schools teach the law school curriculum.
Last year, former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant sat on former President Trump’s commission to design a plan for “patriotic education” in schools that would de-emphasize the nation’s racist sins and paint the nation’s founders as heroes without mentioning, for example, that some owned slaves. Current Gov. Tate Reeves also called for the Mississippi Legislature to fund a “patriotic education” program in public schools in his budget proposal last year, but the Legislature declined to do so.
“It’s kind of hypocritical for you to say, ‘Oh, we don’t want you to teach about these people and what this holiday is, but it’s OK to teach about the racist people and people who wanted to keep slavery,’” Turnage said. “I believe the change starts young, and the change starts with the youth.”
Reeves, who grew up in a wealthy family as the son of a successful businessman, declared on Fox News in April that “there is not systemic racism in America”—ignoring the many examples that prove its existence in his own state. That same month, for the second year in a row, he declared April as “Confederate Heritage Month,” as his predecessors have done since Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice began the practice in 1994, less than two decades after President Gerald Ford became the first president to recognize Black History month.
‘We’re Setting The Stage For Us To Get Off Of It’
Young said he wants to see his state go further than the flag in removing celebratory symbols of the Confederacy—including Confederate History Month.
“The removal of the flag is acute, but at the back of that same Capitol building where that new flag flies is a Daughters of the Confederacy statue. Outside of our mayor’s office (in Jackson) is a statue of Andrew Jackson,” he said. Jackson, who predated the Confederacy, was nevertheless a white supremacist and slaveowner who is known for cruel and purposeful acts of genocide against Native Americans. Mississippi’s capital is named for him.
Counties and towns across the state still have monuments to Confederates on public grounds. In Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C., Mississippi is still represented by monuments to two Confederate slave owners. But removing any one symbol, Young said, will never be enough.
“If there’s still troublesome legislation, if there’s still people being discriminated against, if there’s still people being left out of the actual electoral process, then we’re still not done and there’s still more to talk about. There’s just a lot more that the youth or BLM Sip as individuals are working to do in Mississippi. And that should be the conversation. That should be where we should look,” he said.
“Because for me, to have activists our age bring that amount of people out means that we generally have interests in doing more than just that. … Maisie said it once really well, ‘We’re setting the stage for us to get off of it.’”
Read the MFP’s full series on how the Mississippi flag finally changed in 2020:
1. Black Mississippians Paved The Way For State Flag Change A Year Ago Today