By BECKY GILLETTE
In the middle of a coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic that has hit Mississippi particularly hard, the Mississippi Legislature took up one of the most divisive issues in the state’s history. Just a week before an historic vote on Sunday, June 28, to remove the Mississippi state flag—the last state flag in the U.S. that included the racially divisive Confederate battle emblem—it looked unlikely to pass.
Then came an intense lobbying effort the likes of which has rarely been seen with business, industry, religious, educational and athletic leaders from throughout the state petitioning in the final days of the 2020 legislative session to vote to remove the flag. At first, Gov. Tate Reeves supported putting the issue on the November ballot. But Reeves changed his mind after intense lobbying including from one of the state’s most successful businessmen, Joe Frank Sanderson, board chairman of Sanderson Farms based in Laurel.
Sanderson predicted that if lawmakers put the issue on the ballot, there would be all kind of demonstrations and boycotts of conventions, casinos, athletic events and Mississippi products.
In a rare Sunday vote, the Senate approved a bill to replace the flag by a vote of 37-14 and the House approved the bill by a vote of 91-23. The bill requires the current state flag to be officially retired by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History within 15 days of the bill being signed by the governor. The governor has indicated he will sign the bill.
Speaking during the proceedings, Sen. John Horhn said changing the flag won’t magically solve poverty, health disparities, economic strife or violence. But he said it is a big step in the journey to recognize every person’s God-given humanity and self-worth.
The vote was considered an historic transition for Mississippi. Sen. Angela Turner Ford, chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said people in Mississippi can be proud to move forward to adopt a symbol that is inclusive and that all can rally behind.
The bill gives the authority for three elected officials, Gov. Reeves, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Speaker Philip Gunn, to each appoint three people to a commission that will make a recommendation for the new flag that will replace the flag that has flown in the state for 126 years.
The flag vote was precipitated by worldwide protests over the death of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, at the hands of police. Groups that supported the change include the Mississippi Bankers Association, the Mississippi Baptist Convention, the Mississippi Association of Community Colleges, the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, Delta Council, and athletic directors from most of the state’s public colleges and universities.
In the 2001 statewide referendum, changing the flag failed by a two-to-one margin. At the time, some people said they weren’t opposed to changing the flag, but didn’t like the design of the proposed new flag. Some called it “the pizza flag.” This time, the old flag is gone while a commission will be formed to make recommendations for a new flag.
Three alternatives that could be under consideration are the Hospitality Flag, the Seal Flag and the Magnolia Flag. Timothy Mask, president, Maris West & Baker, Jackson, said he doesn’t have a favorite out of the current designs.
“I just think it is important that whatever that symbol is, it is reflective of our population and our values for all of the people in our state,” Mask said. “Most importantly, nothing about the new design should be in conflict with our values or something that would alienate any community.”
Mask said this is a good day for Mississippi, and enhances the state’s image.
“The thing about symbols is they do matter because, by their very nature, a symbol is representative of the people behind the symbol,” Mask said. “When those two things aren’t in alignment anymore, it is time to change the symbol.”
Mask said changing the flag goes deeper than just rebranding. He said that, in general, people in Mississippi are more accepting of diversity and inclusion than is often recognized outside of the state.
“We have different communities that work together, live together and play together,” he said. “We are one of the most inclusive states in the country. That is not to say we don’t have our issues, but so does everyone else.”
Reed Guice, CEO, Guice & Guice, Biloxi, said he has long believed the present flag is a barrier to bringing in all people.
“In fact, it seemed to me that flying of that flag actually said ‘keep out’ to tens of thousands of people who would ordinarily feel comfortable on the Gulf Coast,” said Guice, who has promoted Gulf Coast tourism for more than 30 years. “Changing the flag is not only for tourism, but industry in general and jobs. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for a major corporation to bring talent from outside into the state. More importantly to my heart, failure to change the flag could have caused our children to leave this state. It is not just for existing but for future generations for which the old flag must come down.”
Guice was very pleased that the legislature didn’t put the issue to a vote.
“That would have been the worst possible thing that could have happened,” Guice said.
Like Gov. Reeves, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann also earlier supported a voter referendum. But he changed his mind. Hosemann said in a written statement that he, like a majority of Mississippians, was open to changing the flag.
“Now we must look to a flag for our collective future to be flown over our collective assets,” Hosemann said.
News about Mississippi’s historic flag vote was covered by major news outlets across the country and the world.
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