Why Mississippi lawmakers voted to retire the Confederate flag

Mississippi's House and Senate voted Sunday to retire the state flag bearing the Confederate battle emblem. A new flag will be voted on in November. 

Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Spectators in the Mississippi Senate applaud a rule change Saturday that allowed lawmakers to vote to change the state flag June 28, 2020, at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss.

Mississippi lawmakers voted Sunday to surrender the Confederate battle emblem from their state flag, triggering raucous applause and cheers more than a century after white supremacist legislators adopted the design a generation after the South lost the Civil War.

Mississippi's House and Senate voted in succession Sunday afternoon to retire the flag, each chamber drawing broad bipartisan support for the historic decision. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves has said he will sign the bill, and the state flag would lose its official status as soon as he signs the measure. He did not immediately signal when the signing would take place.

The state had faced mounting pressure to change its flag during the past month amid international protests against racial injustice in the United States. Cheering and applause erupted as lawmakers hugged each other in the Senate with final passage. Even those on the opposite side of the issue hugged as an emotional day of debate drew to a close. Bells also could be heard ringing in the state capital city as passage of the measure was announced.

A commission would 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.

Mississippi has a 38% Black population – and the last state flag incorporates the emblem that's widely seen as racist.

Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn, who is white, has pushed for five years to change the flag, saying that the Confederate symbol is offensive. The House passed the bill 91-23 Sunday afternoon, and the Senate passed it 37-14 later.

“How sweet it is to celebrate this on the Lord’s day,” Mr. Gunn said. "Many prayed to Him to bring us to this day. He has answered.”

Debate over changing the flag has arisen before, and in recent years an increasing number of cities and all the state’s public universities have taken it down on their own. But the issue has never garnered enough support in the conservative Republican-dominated Legislature or with recent governors.

That dynamic changed in a matter of weeks as an extraordinary and diverse coalition of political, business, religious groups, and sports leaders pushed to change the flag.

At a Black Lives Matter protest outside the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion in early June, thousands cheered as an organizer said the state needs to divorce itself from all Confederate symbols.

Religious groups – including the large and influential Mississippi Baptist Convention – said erasing the rebel emblem from the state flag is a moral imperative.

Business groups said the banner hinders economic development in one of the poorest states in the nation.

In a sports-crazy culture, the biggest blow might have happened 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.

“We need something that fulfills the purpose of being a state flag and that everybody in the state has a reason to be proud of,” said Mike Leach, football coach at Mississippi State University.

Many people who wanted to keep the emblem on the Mississippi flag said they see it as a symbol of heritage.

Legislators put the Confederate emblem on the upper left corner of Mississippi flag in 1894, as whites were squelching political power that African Americans gained after the Civil War.

The battle emblem is a red field topped by a blue X with 13 white stars. The Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups have waved the rebel flag for decades. Georgia put the battle emblem prominently on its state flag in 1956, during a backlash to the civil rights movement. That state removed the symbol from its banner in 2001.

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.

After that, legislators opted not to set a flag design themselves. They put the issue on a 2001 statewide ballot, and people voted to keep the flag. An alternate proposal would have replaced the Confederate corner with a blue field topped by a cluster of white stars representing Mississippi as the 20th state.

Democratic state Sen. Derrick Simmons of Greenville, who is African American, said the state deserves a flag that will make all people proud. “Today is a history-making day in the state of Mississippi,” Mr. Simmons told colleagues before the Senate voted for passage. “Let’s vote today for the Mississippi of tomorrow.”

Princeton drops Woodrow Wilson

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Princeton University has announced plans to remove the name of former President Woodrow Wilson from its public policy school because of his segregationist views. The decision reflects a larger shift in views in the America since the killing of George Floyd, as it reverses a decision the Ivy League school made four years ago to retain the name.

University president Christopher Eisgruber said in a letter to the school community Saturday that the board of trustees had concluded that “Wilson’s racist views and policies make him an inappropriate namesake" for Princeton's School of Public and International Affairs and the residential college.

Mr. Eisgruber said the trustees decided in April 2016 on some changes to make the university “more inclusive and more honest about its history" but decided to retain Wilson's name, but revisited the issue in light of the recent killings of George Floyd and others.

Wilson, governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913 and then the 28th U.S. president from 1913 to 1921, supported segregation and imposed it on several federal agencies not racially divided up to that point. He also barred Black students from Princeton while serving as university president and spoke approvingly of the Ku Klux Klan.

Earlier this month, Monmouth University of New Jersey removed Wilson’s name from one of its most prominent buildings, citing efforts to increase diversity and inclusiveness. The superintendent of the Camden school district also announced plans to rename Woodrow Wilson High School, one of the district’s two high schools.

“Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time," Mr. Eisgruber said, adding that the former president's segregationist policies “make him an especially inappropriate namesake for a public policy school."

The trustees said they had taken what they called “this extraordinary step” because Wilson’s name was not appropriate “for a school whose scholars, students, and alumni must be firmly committed to combatting the scourge of racism in all its forms."

The school will now be known as the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, he said. Princeton had already planned to close Wilson College and retire its name after opening two new residential colleges currently under construction but will change the name to First College immediately.

Mr. Eisgruber said the conclusions “may seem harsh to some" since Wilson is credited with having “remade Princeton, converting it from a sleepy college into a great research university," and he went on to become president and receive a Nobel Prize.

But while Princeton honored Wilson despite or perhaps even in ignorance of his views, that is part of the problem, Mr. Eisgruber said. “Princeton is part of an America that has too often disregarded, ignored, or excused racism, allowing the persistence of systems that discriminate against Black people," he said.

Four years ago, a 10-member committee gathered input from Wilson scholars and more than 600 submissions from alumni, faculty and the public before concluding that Wilson’s accomplishments merited commemoration, so long as his faults were also candidly recognized. The committee report also said using his name “implies no endorsement of views and actions that conflict with the values and aspirations of our times.”

Princeton will retain Wilson's name on an award given annually to an undergraduate alumnus or alumna since it stems from a gift that requires that the prize be named for Wilson and honor his “conviction that education is for ‘use’ and … the high aims expressed in his memorable phrase, ‘Princeton in the Nation’s Service,” the trustees said.

Mr. Floyd died May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee into his neck for several minutes even as he pleaded for air and stopped moving.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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