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For years, legislative proposals to change the Mississippi state flag quietly died in committee.
A similar fate seemed likely for legislation filed early this year—until tens of thousands of people, risking infection amid a pandemic, took to the streets to express outrage at the death of another Black man being restrained by another White police officer.
Now, the only state flag in the country to still bear a Confederate battle image has become unpalatable to the institutions that hold considerable power in the Deep South.
NASCAR drivers and college sports leaders rebelled. Religious leaders, senior statesmen, and Walmart weighed in. Country music star Faith Hill also joined the voices calling for change, providing more political cover for state lawmakers who’ve been reluctant to scrap that vestige of the Jim Crow era.
A procedural vote that could lead to action on the flag has been tentatively set for Saturday.
“Let me just be blunt, this flag, if we let it, it’s going to tear us apart,” Republican Jeremy England said on the state Senate floor Friday. “That flag is going to change. It’s going to. But the longer we put it off, the worse it’s going to be on all us in this room.”
State Sen. Chris McDaniel (R) said lawmakers shouldn’t be vilified for wanting another statewide vote instead of making a decision themselves. “How does standing for the political process make me a racist?” McDaniel said.
In a 2001 referendum, Mississippi voters chose to keep the flag as it was set up in 1894, one of many symbols embraced by southern Whites who resented the fleeting power gained by Black citizens during Reconstruction.
Gov. Tate Reeves (R) has suggested he probably wouldn’t veto legislation to change the flag now, even though he’d prefer another statewide vote.
But Reeves, in office just a few months, probably isn’t the ultimate opinion-driver for holdouts in the Mississippi Legislature, Nathan Shrader, a Millsaps College political science professor, said in a telephone interview.
“The person that could push this over the finish line is sitting in the Oval Office,” Shrader said. “Donald J. Trump could change this with one sentence: ‘Time to change the flag.’ Game over. End of story.”
Trump campaigned for Reeves and carried the state with 57.9% of the vote in 2016.
If a two-thirds threshold to suspend regular legislative rules is met, a simple majority in both chambers would be enough to pass a bill to change the flag before the Legislature adjourns. That vote could take place Saturday.
The push to change Mississippi’s flag comes amid a national conversation about race that followed the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man. He died after a White Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes while Floyd pleaded for air.
In a radio interview Friday, state Senate Minority Leader Robert Johnson III (D) said Mississippi’s high rates of poverty and unemployment are entwined with racism. “If you don’t think the image that that flag represents has something to do with that, then you’re fooling yourself,” Johnson said.
The Mississippi Economic Council has warned state leaders for years that companies have been hesitant to come to Mississippi because of the flag. Last week, the NCAA, the Southeastern Conference and Conference USA all announced that Mississippi would be barred from hosting sports championships so long as the Confederate emblem remained part of its flag.
Lucien Smith, head of the Mississippi GOP, and former Gov. Phil Bryant, whom Reeves replaced in January, released statements Thursday saying the flag’s time had come. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker and Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch—all Republicans—have suggested an option bearing the state motto, “In God We Trust.”
That line featured prominently in Reeves’ early campaign ads last year to communicate his connection to traditional Mississippi values.
“This entire state is screaming for change,” House Speaker Philip Gunn (R) said at a news conference Thursday. “This is an issue that needs to be resolved and resolved quickly. The longer it goes, the more it festers and the harder it’s going to be later on. The image of our state is at stake here, ladies and gentleman. The nation is watching.”
On Facebook, Reeves wrote: “I think there’s a good chance that Mississippians’ views might have changed since the last vote in 2001, but the people should get to send that message. My primary goal is the unity of our people, and I really fear any action that would tear us apart.”
In 2017, Rep. Karl Oliver (R) said in a social media post that anyone who supported removing Confederate monuments should be “lynched.” On Thursday, Oliver called on his House colleagues to support a new flag “that creates unity.”
“History will record the position I chose,” Oliver said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Jennifer Kay in Miami at firstname.lastname@example.org