Lawmakers could change Mississippi’s state flag today. Do they want to?
Published 10:13 am Tuesday, June 9, 2020
As organizers of Saturday’s historic Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Jackson decried state-sanctioned racial inequities, a massive Mississippi state flag — the last in the nation containing the Confederate battle emblem — flapped in the breeze a few yards behind them in front of the home of Gov. Tate Reeves.
The crowd of at least 3,000 protesters later marched past the Mississippi State Capitol, where state flags flew outside the office windows of Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, and loudly chanted: “Change the flag!”
Reeves, Hosemann and Gunn, in the most pivotal racial moment in America since the 1960s, find themselves leading the state with the highest percentage of black residents in the nation. As tens of thousands of black Mississippians and their multi-racial allies marched the streets of dozens of cities in recent days, the state flag has been and will remain a focal point of demonstrations.
“Elected officials who choose to stay silent on this issue are cowards,” said Jarrius Adams, a 22-year-old activist who co-organized Saturday’s Black Lives Matter protest in Jackson. “The history and heritage it symbolizes isn’t welcoming or inclusive for black folks. Our elected officials have a responsibility to ensure anything that represents our state represents us equitably.”
The state flag, long the subject of controversy in Mississippi, was adopted in 1894 by white lawmakers, hungry for power following years of black leadership during Reconstruction. Most of the white Mississippians who held power in the late 1800s and early 1900s were direct descendants of soldiers who fought or died in the Civil War. They championed racist policies meant to limit the rights of black Mississippians, and they paid homage to the Lost Cause in the form of monuments, flags and other iconography that glorified the South’s losing fight to uphold slavery.
Violent and racist extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan commandeered the Confederate battle emblem during their rise of power in the mid-1900s. Even today, those sparsely organized groups and lone-wolf stragglers clinging to their same values still prominently feature the flag. Some extremists have even displayed the Mississippi state flag beside the Confederate battle flag at nationally broadcast protests in recent years.
Despite the history of the symbol, efforts to change the Mississippi flag have failed. Few political moments in recent years — including the referendum in 2001 in which Mississippians voted almost 2-to-1 to keep the current flag — have spurred meaningful staying power for those who want the state’s elected officials to change the flag.
But this current movement, as displayed in Jackson and cities across the state the past week, provides hope to many Mississippians that a change is possible.
In just the past few days, there’s precedent for state leaders to act as Confederate iconography across the South is being toppled. Where protesters haven’t taken matters into their own hands, leaders of major Southern cities have removed statues and flags and other Confederate symbolism.
Last week, even the United States Marine Corps issued a ban on the Confederate battle flag at Marine installations (though the Marines did leave an exception specifically for Mississippi because of its state flag).
Reeves, Hosemann and Gunn likely carry the influence to change the state flag. They’d need support from at least a simple majority of the Legislature, but all three can whip majority votes with ease. With that support, the process could be completed start-to-finish in one day with careful planning.
These are the legislative steps to change the state flag:
Lawmakers have long pointed back to the 2001 flag referendum and said that Mississippians themselves, not the Legislature, should decide the fate of the flag on a statewide ballot. But that 2001 vote completely excluded the largest voting bloc in the state: millennials and generation Z. Any Mississippian currently under the age of 37 years old was unable to vote in that referendum.
“I was 3-years-old in April of 2001, but now I can vote and I pay taxes,” Adams, the organizer, said. “I also am one of the few students who chose to stay in Mississippi after graduating from the University of Mississippi. At some point we have to say that a new generation has risen and things needs to change.”
Reeves, playing to his base of conservative, older white voters across the state, pointed to the 2001 vote in an October 2019 gubernatorial debate and said voters should again decide the fate of the flag.
Hosemann also pushed the “citizens should vote” narrative as recently as late 2019. But several key lawmakers at the Capitol believe his perspective on politics could spur a change of heart, particularly in this moment of pain for so many. Hosemann, a political moderate who supports issues like expanding Medicaid, has worked hard to maintain close working relationships with leaders of the Legislative Black Caucus.
A few days after he took office in January, Mississippi Today asked him in a podcast interview if he realized he was broadly considered by voters as a politician who could better represent Mississippians who have long felt underrepresented in Jackson. Hosemann acknowledged he’d heard that sentiment from Mississippians of all races and political backgrounds, and his answer to the question moved two of his staffers in the room to tears.
“I have a distinct feeling that I have a burden here, a big heavy weight,” Hosemann told Mississippi Today in the podcast interview. “My issues, I think, are the ones that are talked about at the kitchen table. And that’s on purpose.”
Hosemann continued: “I so don’t want to disappoint so many people that are thinking I can make their lives better. I think if you care about people, you end up feeling like this. It’s a heavy weight for anybody. I will try as hard as I possibly can. I don’t intend to disappoint anyone. It’ll be better than what it is today.”
Gunn remains one of the only top Mississippi Republican officials who has publicly maintained that the state flag should change. Though his personal position hasn’t wavered, no bills to change the flag have passed through a House committee under his leadership. In sessions past, he said he didn’t believe he had the votes in the House or support in the Senate to seriously push the issue.
In theory, Hosemann and Gunn wouldn’t need Reeves’ participation. As long as they could whip two-thirds votes in their chambers, they could create a veto-proof majority to change the state flag. They’ve proven the ability to do that on other issues already this session.
But many Mississippians feel this moment is different, and elected officials’ role in perpetuating racism is at the heart of the movement. On Saturday, several protesters said that a push to change the flag from Reeves, Hosemann and Gunn could help create unity in the state that would resonate with every Mississippian involved in the movement.
“The flag and other symbols celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy and a history that enslaved, traumatized and oppressed my ancestors for more than 400 years,” Adams said. “I see the flag and it shows me how much work needs to be done.”
“Mississippi is a state that I love,” Adams said, “but with the current state flag, Mississippi struggles to love me back.”
By Adam Ganucheau, Mississippi Today