For nearly two decades, Mississippi has been the last state to feature a symbol of the Confederacy on its state flag. That’s about to change, as the state legislature voted on Sunday to strip the flag of the Confederate battle emblem in a historic, bipartisan vote.
The House passed the measure by a 91-23 margin, and the Senate followed suit, passing the bill by a vote of 37-14.
Both Republicans and Democrats lauded the decision:
Democratic Rep. Robert Johnson of Natchez choked back tears as he told reporters that he has seen white colleagues develop more empathy about how the Confederate symbol is painful to him and other African Americans.
“They began to understand and feel the same thing that I’ve been feeling for 61 years of my life,” Johnson said.
House Speaker Philip Gunn, a white Republican, reacted in such a dramatic way that sounded like it should be accompanied by a horrific Hollywood Southern accent:
“How sweet it is to celebrate this on the Lord’s day,” Gunn said. “Many prayed to Him to bring us to this day. He has answered.”
No doubt his sentiment was sincere, melodramatic as it was.
What’s next for Mississippi’s flag? The legislature will appoint a commission to submit designs with two conditions: the flag must have no Confederate symbolism but must include the phrase “In God We Trust.” Voters will choose a new flag from submissions this November.
That process reminds me of when Georgia’s legislature decided to replace the same Confederate symbol from its flag in 2001. After Roy Barnes foisted an ugly flag on Georgia and lost the 2002 election, his successor Sonny Perdue gave Georgians the option of a better-looking flag. The voters chose the flag that flies over the Peach State to this day.
Although Mississippi has faced recent pressure in our current sensitive climate to change its flag – from protesters over recent racially charged incidents to pressure from the Southeastern Conference to refuse to allow post-season events to take place in the state – it’s not the first time the flag has been subject to change.
A ballot initiative to change Mississippi’s current flag, which the state adopted in 1894 in response to Reconstruction, went to voters in 2001. Facing ugly, heated debate, the voters decided to keep the current flag.
It’s been a long time coming. For years – at least since the controversy over the Confederate flag in South Carolina in 2015 – I’ve said that the Confederate flag should never fly on state grounds anywhere in the South. I’ve said that Southerners need to choose their battles and that that flag isn’t one of those battles worth fighting.
It shouldn’t have taken global protests to push Mississippi’s legislature to get rid of that element of their state flag, but it did. Only the Lord knows what’s in the hearts and minds of the legislators of Mississippi. I hope they did the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing instead of caving in to pressure, but I just don’t know.
[CORRECTION: This article was edited to more clearly reflect the process of changing Georgia’s flag.]