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‘The Flag is Coming Down’: Lawmakers Vote to Change Mississippi State Flag

The 1894 Mississippi State Flag, like this one seen outside the Mississippi State Capitol building, may soon come down. Photo by Ashton Pittman.

In a historic vote today, large majorities in both houses of the Mississippi Legislature voted to move forward on an effort to retire and replace the Confederate-themed Mississippi State Flag.

Sen. Barbara Blackmon, a Black Democrat from Jackson, spoke on the Senate floor this afternoon, recounting the times in history that moved her to tears—the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy; Tiger Woods’ 1997 Masters’ Tournament Victory; and the ascendance of America’s first Black president. She cried, she said, “because those moments were historical, just as the vote to change this flag is historical.”

Mississippi Sen. Barbara Blackmon, D-Jackson, compared the vote to change the Mississippi state flag to the moment when America elected its first black president. Photo courtesy Mississippi Legislature

Blackmon recalled tears turning into icicles on her face one frosty cold January day in Washington, D.C., as she watched Barack Obama take the oath of office.

“Just as I thought I would never live to see a Barack Obama, I thought I would never live to see this flag come down,” she said.

‘I Always Knew Progress Was Possible’

The Republican-dominated Senate voted 36-14 in favor of the resolution to change the flag hours after the House, where Republican members hold a supermajority, voted 85-34 on its resolution

The votes on the resolutions suspended the rules in each house, allowing for the introduction of a new bill to change the flag. Under regular rules, lawmakers cannot introduce new legislation this late in the session. But in the wake of a nationwide racial reckoning over systemic racism and white supremacy, the Republican leaders of the Mississippi House and Senate, joined by a number of Democrats who have long supported changing the flag, spent much of this month working to whip votes in favor of a new flag. 

“Changing the flag is long overdue. … This is a unique opportunity, one that we should not squander,” Mississippi House Rep. Jeramey Anderson, a 28-year-old African American Democrat from Moss Point, said in a statement moments after the House passed its resolution.

African American lawmakers in Mississippi have been pushing for a new flag for decades, including former Democratic Mississippi House Rep. Aaron Henry, a longtime NAACP leader with a storied civil rights legacy, who introduced numerous bills to change the flag in the 1980s and 90s. Those bills never got a vote.

Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, who in 1986 became the first Black congressman Mississippi had elected since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, celebrated today’s ruling.

Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, seen here at a 2018 campaign event, welcomed today’s vote as a sign of progress. Photo by Ashton Pittman

“Growing up, I faced some of the worst of what our state flag represented. Despite that, I always knew progress was possible,” tweeted Espy, a Democrat who grew up in Yazoo City during segregation and is challenging U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith for her seat in November. “Today, our state legislators helped usher in a new era for Mississippi—one that is more inclusive, equitable and prosperous. The flag is coming down!”

‘History Will Be Made Here Today’

Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn, a Republican from Clinton, first endorsed changing the flag in 2015, after a neo-Confederate white supremacist murdered nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., prompting that state’s lawmakers to decide to remove a Confederate Battle Flag from its capitol grounds. Gunn faced pushback, though, with angry supporters of Mississippi’s 1894 flag showing up at the Neshoba County Fair a month later holding signs that read, “Keep the Flag, Change the Speaker.”

If the proposed legislation became law, Mississippi would not have a flag until the Legislature decided on a new one. It would require legislators to design a flag with two stipulations: It must not include the Confederate battle emblem and it must include the words, “In God We Trust.” Supporters of changing the flag thought that requiring the words, “In God We Trust” on a new flag would woo some conservative lawmakers who were reluctant to embrace a change.

On the floor today, Mississippi House Rep. Jason White, a Republican from West, introduced the resolution.

“The eyes of our state, the nation, and indeed the world are on this House this morning. History will be made here today. … Whether we like it or not, the Confederate emblem on our state flag is viewed by many as a symbol of hate. There is no getting around that fact,” White said.

Republican Mississippi House Rep. Jason White, right, said lawmakers must accept the fact that the current state flag is a symbol of hate and “oppression” for many Americans. Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn, left, spent recent weeks whipping votes for a new flag. Photo courtesy Mississippi Legislature.

Mississippi should not just change the flag because of outside pressure, though, he said, but because it is “the right thing to do.”

“You and I cannot carry the banner of freedom in one hand and the banner of hate in another. It does not work that way,” White said.

In the Senate, Sen. W. Briggs Hopson, a Vicksburg Republican, also urged his colleagues to vote for the resolution, saying he wanted to ensure a future where his children and grandchildren could stay in Mississippi and prosper. 

“Today you and Mississippi have a date with destiny. Destiny is calling. … I don’t know how long I want Mississippi to be kicked around because of a piece of cloth we have flying over our capitol,” Hopson said.

‘We’re Elected to Make Tough Choices’

Mississippi House Rep. Chris Brown, a Republican from Nettleton, spoke against the resolution. 

“I’m not rising in support of the current flag, but I want the people to have the choice,” the Monroe County representative said, explaining that he believes voters should decide the flag in a resolution and not “steal the joy” from voters.

Mississippi House Rep. Chris Brown, R-Nettleton, opposed today’s resolution. Photo courtesy Mississippi Legislature

A few hours later, Mississippi Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, would make a similar argument in the Senate, and accuse lawmakers of “sowing the seeds of discord by not allowing the people” to decide on the flag.

In 2000, a governor-appointed commission that included Black officials held hearings around the state. The meetings were chaotic, with 1894 flag supporters often jeering at and hurling racist epithets at Black speakers and Black commission members. Several months later, in April 2001, a majority of voters opted to keep the Confederate-themed flag. A recent poll, though, showed that for the first time, a majority of Mississippians support changing the flag.

“Let’s not take their joy. If it is defeated at the ballot box, it is over,” Brown said on the House floor today.

Rep. White returned to the podium to address Brown’s remarks directly.

“There’s no desire here to usurp anybody’s right to a vote. People voted for you and me. You went to their door, and you knocked on it and asked them to vote for you. You signed up for this,” White said. 

“This country has gone to war, and we didn’t stop and weigh all the things and run a ballot out to every person in this nation when Pearl Harbor was bombed to see if we were going to go to war. This state seceded from the union and they didn’t run a ballot box up through the Mississippi River and down the middle of the state on a railroad to see where everybody weighed in on it. Delegates went and they took a vote and they moved. And why today would you urge anything different?”

‘We Cannot Escape History’

Earlier, White told members of the body that voters elected them “to make tough decisions” and that they could not “shirk (their) responsibilities.”

The Holmes County Republican then quoted the president who led the Union in its war against the Confederacy.

“In one of our nation’s darkest hours, President Lincoln, addressing Congress, described the inescapable duties of elected leaders. Those words still ring true today. Here’s what he said: ‘We cannot escape history. We will be remembered in spite of ourselves. We hold the power and we bear the responsibility.’”

In the Senate, Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, argued that the people should vote on whether or not to change the flag by referendum. Photo by Ashton Pittman.

“It’s time to exercise our responsibility today,” White continued. “It’s time to adopt a new state flag that’s rooted in the best traditions of that liberty and that justice for all that we talk about. Let’s move forward together and show the nation once and for all that we are one nation under God.”

Later, in the upper chamber, Sen. Hillman Frazier, a Jackson Democrat, smiled at his colleagues as he spoke.

“Today before you vote, pray first, aim high, and stay focused—focus on the future of this state. You’re writing the next chapter of this state, because we’re here to make this state better for those that come behind us,” Frazier said.

The House and Senate will convene again tomorrow, where lawmakers plan to take up legislation to formally change the flag, which will only require a simple majority unlike today’s resolutions. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, has said that he will sign a flag bill if it reaches his desk.

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