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Phillip Gunn

DAVID DALLAS: The flag flaps over the state’s next governor’s race

DAVID DALLAS

DAVID DALLAS

We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us,” Mississippi House Speaker Phillip Gunn said last week. “As a Christian, I believe our state’s flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed. We need to begin having conversations about changing Mississippi’s flag.”

That’s right, Speaker Gunn used a form of the word “change” in regards to our state’s iconic and problematic flag. Okay, he didn’t come right out and say that, as House Speaker, he would take legislative action to “change it.” But, at least, he said we should talk about it. The very utterance of its “point of offense” from someone in Gunn’s position could have a great impact on a our flag debate.

Some argue those in the GOP now flip flopping on the Confederate battle flag are merely trying to keep up with our new American zeitgeist.

That is doubtful. Too many in the electorate, specifically a distressingly high number of the electorate in Mississippi, are still caught in the throes of years of entrenched race-baiting. The coded rhetoric that captivated them when Ronald Reagan swept the South in 1980 is now accepted “fact.” They believe the reason the middle class is shrinking is the result of welfare programs and welfare queens. They see black people, as well as all those other people of color, “taking over.” Gunn’s announcement was, therefore, courageous to a point.

Gunn may be testing the waters. He would have to withstand an all out assault from the regressive, Confederate-flag-waving, hate-base that has been the backbone of the Grand Old Party in Mississippi. Does he want change bad enough? A long time minister friend says he does. “He only says that which comes from within.”

The minister added, “That is the most genuine politician you will ever meet.” One has to believe that Gunn is sincere enough with his Christian love and faith. He should want to see us all move beyond the symbol of hate camped out in the upper corner of our state’s flag.

But we will see if he has the political will and fortitude to make bringing down our state’s flag an item on the upcoming legislative agenda. He certainly made his announcement early enough to give the flag flap opportunity to die down. It just might. After all, football season starts soon and the Ole Miss Rebels look poised for a national championship run.

Gunn knew there was no danger Governor Bryant would call a special session this summer to discuss a change. The good Governor simply reminded folks of the results from a 2001 referendum. “A vast majority of Mississippians voted to keep the state’s flag.”

Nearly 66 percent of Mississippi voters chose to keep the existing state flag in 2001. But Bryant went further in his remarks. He challenged Speaker Gunn’s assertion that the Mississippi Legislature should even have a “conversation.” Bryant said he did not believe the Legislature should do anything “to supersede the will of the people on this issue.”

Our State’s Lt. Governor parroted Governor Bryant’s remarks. Yes, Tate “Tater” Reeves said the flag issue will be “decided by the people of Mississippi, not by outsiders or media elites or politicians in a back room.”

That “politicians-in-a-back-room” retort was clearly a warning to Gunn. The Lt. Governor is daring House Speaker Gunn to try to change the flag through the legislative process. He has a good reason.

It is true that the Lt. Governor and Speaker have operated mostly in lock step with the ALEC-controlled juggernaut that is our Mississippi Legislature. But Tater fears Gunn’s political aspirations. Tater expects to be our next Governor in four years. He knows the only person who can keep him from moving into the mansion after Bryant’s exit is Phillip Gunn.

Tater worries Gunn might win over those young people keeping up with current events, those who may not be old enough to vote now, but who will be by 2019. Gunn may also be trying to reach those usually apathetic, turned-off, X and Y generation voters who might decide to start voting at some point.

While Reeves is younger than Gunn, his politics and views on race are as traditional as his powerful mentor, Haley Barbour’s. Tater also has an enormous war chest to sell his side of the story to voters.

Tater can let Gunn lead the fight to bring down our flag. Then, if Tater feels the political winds blowing the electorate towards the 21st century, his task is simple. The Lt. Governor can just use his mighty war chest and the Mississippi media machine to convince voters it’s what he wanted all along and that he helped to make it happen.

Tater can also let Gunn go as far out on the limb as he dares. Then, if Tater feels the political winds blowing our state backwards, his task is even simpler and cheaper for him. He can cut that limb right out from underneath Speaker Gunn and make sure Mississippi voters have their say in yet another referendum on the flag.

That’s where Tater is sure to win. Voters who actually vote in Mississippi have proven they don’t care enough to change our state flag. We all know things change slowly in Mississippi… real slow. Tater is banking on it.

Another flag referendum might bring that 2001 vote of 66 percent down to under 60 percent. But Tater knows it will still be safely over 50 percent and the Confederate battle flag will continue its defiant wave over our state.

Gunn might look progressive calling for a conversation on changing the flag. But it will mean little without his delivering legislative action. Even then, bringing down the flag only ends the state’s official use of a symbol of white privilege and hate. There is so much more work to be done to build real hope and strengthen all the communities within our state. Is Gunn ready to be that kind of leader?

» David Dallas is a political writer for the Mississippi Business Journal. He worked for former U.S. Sen. John Stennis and authored Barking Dawgs and A Gentleman from Mississippi.

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