July 6, 2020

Mississippi’s flag change: ‘Bottom line is this is just the right thing to do’

The House and Senate are expected to act quickly this weekend to remove the Mississippi state flag, the last in the nation containing the Confederate battle emblem, after clearing the procedural path on Saturday.

The bill to remove the current flag and begin the process of adopting a new one will require only simple majorities in both chambers to pass. Procedural votes on Saturday required a more difficult two-thirds majority in both chambers to pass.

“I think it was a historic moment in our state and it was the right thing to do,” said House Speaker Philip Gunn, who in the summer of 2015 surprised his Republican House majority caucus when he announced his support for changing the flag.

“The bottom line is the image of our state hangs in the balance,” Gunn said. “We talk about the business impact, the economic impact. All those things are real, but the bottom line is this is just the right thing to do.”

A couple hours after the historic 85-35 House vote to suspend the rules in the House on Saturday, the Senate followed suit, passing the resolution 36-14. Leaders say the Legislature will begin the next step on Sunday.

“You’ll see us come back tomorrow and we’ll start the process of adopting the actual bill itself,” said Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann. “We have many steps to take yet. But the first step in that journey was taken today.”

The resolution states a commission would be created to redesign the state flag. The commission would recommend a new design by Sept. 14, and voters would approve or reject that design on Nov. 3.

The design “would not include the Confederate battle flag but shall include the words ‘In God We Trust’,” the resolution stated. Should voters reject that design, the commission would present a new option during the 2021 legislative session, according to the resolution.

Now that the path has been cleared to consider a bill, the exact details of it are subject to change during the legislative process. At any point, the bill could be amended to change the process of replacing the flag or even forcing a vote on whether to keep the current flag.

But based on Saturday’s vote on the rules suspension resolution, it appears House and Senate leaders have the votes to ensure the demise of the current flag that has been flying since 1894.

The House passed the resolution on Saturday that would suspend the chamber’s rules so that lawmakers can consider the bill to remove and change the flag. Immediately afterwards, it went to the floor for a vote and passed 85-35. All Democrats and both independents voted for the change, and 38 Republicans voted for the proposal compared to the 35 no votes in the caucus.

“The eyes of the state, the nation and indeed the world are on us and what we do today,” said House Speaker Pro Tem Jason White, R-West, who presented the resolution to the floor. “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.”

Before the resolution went to a vote on the House floor, the discussion was not contentious — members listened attentively and some even recorded on their phones. Dozens of Mississippians who had tried but failed to sit in the House gallery to watch the historic vote sat in the Capitol hallways watching live streams on their phones. When the final House vote occurred, cheers and applause echoed throughout the building.

Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, spoke about how he was on the flag commission for the 2001 referendum, and how that turned out “not as an exploration of ideas, but an expression of hurt and hatred and divisiveness and racial discord.”

“Some of you when you come in here don’t notice that flag up in the corner,” Blackmon said. “There’s some of us who notice it every time we walk in here and it is not a good feeling … It ought to be something that fills us with a sense of pride, so we know it’s about us, not just some of us.”

The Senate passed the same resolution a couple hours later through its Rules committee and later on the Senate floor.

All 16 Senate Democrats voted for the resolution to change the banner. Of the 36 Senate Republicans, 20 voted for the resolution while 14 voted no and two did not vote.

Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, who explained the resolution on the floor one day after his father’s funeral, said the state was at a crossroads and that he understood how many believed the flag represented the state’s heritage.

But, he said, “I believe for the future of this state the best thing we can do is change this flag.”

In days leading up to the vote, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, assured reporters and his thousands of social media followers that he’d secured enough Senate votes to kill the resolution. McDaniel spoke for several minutes against the resolution from the Senate floor, shortly before most of those senators he thought he’d won over voted to pass it.

“People here will paint me as a terrible human being,” McDaniel said. “The only thing I’m asking for is the right of the people to decide this issue for themselves. I don’t see how that makes me a racist.”

Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement who’s served in the Legislature for nearly three decades, was emotional as he approached a group of fellow lawmakers at the well of the Senate after Saturday’s vote.

“I never thought I would see this,” Jordan said. “It’s different than it was in 2001.”

Sen. Barbara Blackmon, D-Canton, and Sen. Hillman Frazier, D-Jackson, spoke in favor of the resolution from the floor. Blackmon likened Saturday’s vote to historic moments great and terrible, including President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

“I never thought I would see this flag come down in my lifetime,” Blackmon said.

The vote on the controversial issue at this late date in the session is notable. Garnering a two-thirds vote to suspend rules for any reason is difficult, but particularly on the long-contentious state flag issue.

For years, supporters of changing the flag have not been able to garner the simple majority needed to change the controversial banner through the normal legislative process. But the violent death of George Floyd, an African American man, in Minneapolis sparked nationwide protests that reached Mississippi and shined new light on the state flag that many view as racist.

And in recent weeks, immense pressure mounted from religious, business, civic, university, sports and other leaders to remove the Confederate emblem from the flag. A growing list of businesses, cities, counties and other groups have either stopped flying the flag or asked leaders to change it. Religious leaders have spoken out, saying changing the flag is a “moral issue.” The NCAA, SEC, and Conference USA this month took action to ban post-season play in the state until the flag is changed.

Pointing to the state flag in the ornate House chamber, Rep. Blackmon guessed many white members did not even notice it when they walked into the chamber.

“But there are some of us who notice it every time we walk in here,” Rep. Blackmon said. “It is not a good feeling.”

This article was written and published by Mississippi Today.