Why Mississippi voted to change its flag after decades of debate

State Rep. Robert Johnson, 61, who grew up in Natchez, Mississippi, remembers seeing Ku Klux Klan members flying Confederate flags while riding horses in the town’s Christmas parades until his early teenage years.

“It is a symbol of terror in the Black community,” he told NBC News. “It is a symbol of oppression in the Black community and it is a symbol of slavery. Everything that has been devastating to African Americans and to especially African Americans in the South, everything that has been a complete and utter disaster for us, that flag represents.”

So after Johnson witnessed Sunday’s historic vote in the Mississippi House of Representatives to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag, he had one response: “It’s about damn time.”

The bill passed 37 to 14 in the state Senate and 91-23 in the House in favor of changing the flag. Gov. Tate Reeves signed the bill Tuesday evening, and now a commission will be assembled to design a new version.

The debate around Mississippi’s state flag is not new, but with the governor’s signature it finally reached a conclusion after many failed attempts to change it. The difference this year, according to Johnson, was the bipartisan leadership by first-term legislators.

“We’ve never had anything start in the Legislature that way, and then it just became a perfect storm,” Johnson said, referring to the protests across the country for police reform and against racism, spurred by George Floyd’s killing while in the custody of Minneapolis police. The demonstrations added to pressure from state business leaders and large religious groups, as well as national sports organizations including the NCAA and the Southeastern Conference to change the state flag.

“It’s surreal … but at the same time, it’s kind of like ‘why did it have to take this long?” said Taylor Turnage, 23, president of the Mississippi Youth and College NAACP and the co-organizer for Black Lives Matter Mississippi. “I’m very, very grateful that we’ve gotten to the point where we are now because this fight has been going on for a long time, but it shouldn’t have had to take that long.”

When the issue was put to Mississippians in a statewide referendum in 2001, voters by an almost 2-to-1 margin chose to keep the 1894 state flag. Even this year, some legislators pushed for sending the issue back to voters rather than take it up themselves.

Johnson said that when he started fighting to change the flag, he was full of hope, thinking that people would recognize the pain it has caused. But eventually that hope faded to numbness.

“It just makes it hard to get anything done in this state, it makes it hard to sit down and have a conversation,” he said. “And so that removal of that flag will be like somebody taking the bars off of our doors. It would be like taking the wall that’s between us, it would be torn down, and we’ll begin to be able to work together.”

Hope for change revived in 2015, after a mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, claimed the lives of nine African Americans. At the time, both of Mississippi’s U.S. senators, Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran, voiced support for changing the flag.

The Republican speaker of the Mississippi House, Philip Gunn, also supported its removal then and played a key part in the legislation passed this week.

Also in 2015, several universities across the state voted to stop flying the state flag. The following year, more than a dozen bills were brought to the state Legislature in support of changing it. Yet none made it out of committees to a vote.

In February 2016, Judge Carlos Moore, 43, an African American civil rights attorney and judge in Clarksdale, filed a lawsuit against the state, saying the flag violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. This lawsuit continued until November 2017, with Moore filing appeals with both the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. Moore said the suit was dismissed because he lacked the standing to file it.

In a tearful reflection after the state Senate vote, Moore said that he was glad his 9-year-old daughter does not have to come of age in a Mississippi under the symbol that the state flag represents.

The legal battles relating to the flag have further damaged Mississippi’s national reputation. The state already ranks near the bottom nationally on issues such as the economy, health care and education.

State Rep. Trey Lamar, 39, chair of the ways and means committee, pointed to the economic benefits of removing the symbol.

“I believe that changing, retiring our current flag, changing to a more unifying flag and banner on this stage, will show the world that Mississippi is a great place to do business,” he said. “It’s certainly going to be my goal to use this to help recruit businesses and jobs to our state.”

A recent poll by the Mississippi Economic Council said that 55 percent of Mississippians were in favor of changing the flag.

Mississippi was the last state in the country to fly a flag with a Confederate symbol. Campaigns for a new flag have circulated for several years, including one for The Hospitality Flag (previously called the Stennis Flag), designed in 2014 by Mississippi artist Laurin Stennis. The 1861 Magnolia Flag and The Bonnie Blue Flag could also be options, according to The Clarion-Ledger. The legislation states that the new flag must include the phrase, “In God We Trust,” and that the new design, “shall honor the past while embracing the promise of the future.”

After a new design is proposed, Mississippians will vote on options in the November election.

“I was elected and all the people here were elected to do a job,” Johnson said. “And it’s our job to do exactly what they did in 1894. It wasn’t the people who gave us this terrible flag, it was the Legislature. It’s our job to take it away.”