JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi will retire the last state flag in the U.S. with the Confederate battle emblem, more than a century after white supremacist legislators adopted the design.
A broad coalition of lawmakers — Black and white, Democrat and Republican — voted Sunday (June 28) for change as the state faced increasing pressure amid nationwide protests against racial injustice.
Mississippi has a 38 percent Black population, and critics have said for generations that it’s wrong to have a flag that prominently features an emblem many condemn as racist. The flag was adopted in 1894, long after the South lost the Civil War.
Democratic Sen. David Jordan told his colleagues just before the vote that Mississippi needs a flag that unifies rather than divides.
“Let’s do this because it’s the right thing to do,” Jordan said.
The Senate voted 37-14 to retire the flag, hours after the House voted 91-23.
Cheers rang out in the state Capitol after the Senate vote. Some spectators wept. Legislators embraced each other, many hugging colleagues who were on the opposing side of an issue that has long divided the tradition-bound state.
Shawn Parker, executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, told Baptist Press he believes the decision to replace the flag design was the right one.
“I appreciate the leaders of Mississippi Baptists taking a stand on a controversial issue,” Parker said. “This is the right thing for the state of Mississippi and the right thing for Kingdom of God.”
Parker and others held a press conference June 23  to urge lawmakers to make the change. At the press conference, Parker read a statement signed by Mississippi Baptist Convention President Ken Hester; Jim Futral, Mississippi Baptist Convention Board executive director-treasurer emeritus; Kenny Digby, executive director-treasurer of the Christian Action Commission; the full 15-member MBCB executive committee; and all living former MBC presidents, spanning 1984-2019.
With about 500,000 members, Mississippi Baptists form the largest church group in the state.
Larry Young, the first African American elected as a Mississippi Baptist Convention officer, told Baptist Press in an earlier interview that he agreed with removal of the flag and was hopeful for passing of the new legislation.
“My thought process is the Scripture clearly states that if it offends my brother to eat rice, I will not eat rice,” said Young, pastor of Spangle Banner Missionary Baptist Church in Pace, Miss. “And the problem with the flag is it is offensive to some, and even though where you stand in regards to what the rebel portion represents, inasmuch as it is offensive to some, that makes it offensive to all. So, I’m all for changing the design of it.”
Republican Gov. Tate Reeves is expected to sign the bill into law in the next few days.
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.
A commission will design a new flag that cannot include the Confederate symbol and that must have the words “In God We Trust.” Voters will be asked to approve the new design in the Nov. 3 election. If they reject it, the commission will set a different design using the same guidelines, and that would be sent to voters later.
Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn, who is white, has pushed for five years to change the flag, saying the Confederate symbol is offensive.
“How sweet it is to celebrate this on the Lord’s day,” Gunn said.
Legislators put the Confederate emblem on the upper left corner of Mississippi flag in 1894, a move which many perceived as a countermeasure to political power African Americans had gained after the Civil War.
In a 2001 statewide election, voters chose to keep the flag. An increasing number of cities and all of Mississippi’s public universities have taken down the state flag in recent years. But until now, efforts to redesign the flag sputtered in the Republican-dominated Legislature.
That dynamic shifted as an extraordinary and diverse coalition of political, business, religious groups and sports leaders pushed for change.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and a native Mississippian, wrote in a Washington Post editorial on Sunday (June 28)  that the changing of the state flag “is not about forgetting the past, but about acknowledging it.”
“To change the state flag is not about forgetting the past,” Moore wrote, “but about acknowledging it. The song ‘Dixie’ said that ‘Old times there are not forgotten,’ but, in reality, the price of belonging was to do just that, to forget old times or else to sanctify them as what they were not — to, as the Bible forbids, call good evil and evil good. …
“Being free to embrace all of what Mississippi has to give to the world — while being free to lament all that is awful that has come from our state — is symbolism that points beyond itself, to the possibility of a new day.”
Business groups said the banner hinders economic development in one of the poorest states in the nation.
The biggest blow might have been when college sports leagues said Mississippi could lose postseason events if it continued flying the Confederate-themed flag. Nearly four dozen of Mississippi’s university athletic directors and coaches came to the Capitol to lobby for change.
The Mississippi Supreme Court found in 2000 that when the state updated its laws in 1906, portions dealing with the flag were not included. That meant the banner lacked official status.
The Democratic governor in 2000, Ronnie Musgrove, appointed a commission to decide the flag’s future. It held hearings across the state that grew ugly as people shouted at each other about the flag.
Legislators then opted not to set a flag design themselves and put the issue on the 2001 statewide ballot.
Former Mississippi Gov. William Winter, who is now 97, served on then-President Bill Clinton’s national advisory board on race in the 1990s and was chairman of the Mississippi flag commission in 2000. Winter said Sunday that removing the Confederate symbol from the banner is “long overdue.”
“The battle for a better Mississippi does not end with the removal of the flag, and we should work in concert to make other positive changes in the interest of all of our people,” said Winter, a Democrat who was governor from 1980-1984.
Parker told Baptist Press that the development of a new flag design, which will be handled by a nine-person commissioned team and then voted on by the people of Mississippi in November 2020, should continue to move away from the old design.
“As Mississippi Baptists we don’t have a great concern about the new design so much as we do a concern about moving away from the old design,” Parker said. “We do believe that whatever the new design is needs to be something that unifies the state.”
Democratic state Sen. Derrick Simmons of Greenville, who is African American, said the state deserves a flag to make all people proud.
“Today is a history-making day in the state of Mississippi,” Simmons told colleagues. “Let’s vote today for the Mississippi of tomorrow.”