Every state in the US has its own flag. The flag of Mississippi, adopted in 1894, was the only one that incorporated the confederate battle flag within it, in the top left. This has been a source of contention with many attempts to remove it, all meeting with failure. Mississippi is a deeply conservative Republican state. That party currently has supermajorities in both its house of representatives and the senate plus the governor is a Republican, all of whom strongly opposed any attempt to remove the confederate symbol. The people of Mississippi voted in a referendum 2001 to keep the flag as it was and the current governor Tate Reeves said that the only way to change it would be through another referendum. So proud were they of their confederate association that in just April of this year, the governor Tate Reeves proclaimed it as Confederate Heritage Month.
But then, in a dramatic shift in late June, both houses of the legislature voted by the required 2/3 majorities to remove the flag and the governor signed the bill on June 30th. The house voted 91-23 and the senate 37-14. So after being the only state with a flag that incorporated the confederate flag, Mississippi suddenly became the only state with no flag at all.
What caused the abrupt shift so that something that had been unthinkable just a couple of months ago now has become reality? What made the staunchly conservative, heavily Republican-dominated legislature and governor, formerly ardent supporters of retaining the old flag, rush through this legislation just a day before the deadline when they were due to go on recess?
I had written about this a few weeks ago and had assumed that this was due to public pressure following the widespread protests against police brutality that had resulted in the removal of many symbols of racism in the country. So was I right that the protests caused a sudden change in attitudes among Mississippi lawmakers? Not exactly. While it had re-ignited calls to change the flag, those appeals seemed to be getting nowhere. It turns out that while those events were the ultimate cause and did play a major role, they did so indirectly. The proximate cause was, as is so often the case, the two things that drive much of policy: money and sports. The same public pressures that shifted attitudes in the NFL and the Washington football team because sponsors and advertisers threatened to abandon them, also worked to change positions in MIssissippi.
The process was kick-started on June 18th.
The Southeastern Conference, the preeminent and powerhouse collegiate athletics conference in the South, made their message clear [on June 18th]: Mississippi must change their flag or they may not get championship events.
“It is past time for change to be made to the flag of the State of Mississippi,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement posted to Twitter. “Our students deserve an opportunity to learn and compete in environment that are inclusive and welcoming to all.”
Sankey went on to say that if Mississippi refuses to change their flag this time, they will consider banning championship events from the state until it is.
The NCAA, the governing body of college athletics, also piled on the following day.
A day after SEC commissioner Greg Sankey released a statement saying the conference’s championships will not take place in Mississippi until the Confederate emblem is removed from the state flag, the NCAA put forth an even harsher punishment.
In statement Friday morning, the NCAA prohibited postseason events of any kind from taking place in Mississippi until the symbol of the Confederacy is permanently removed from the flag. The announcement came on Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the emancipation of slaves in the United States.
These threats of losing lucrative sports events lit a fire under the lawmakers and they then rushed through the law to remove the flag that was signed into law by the governor on June 30th. In order to persuade a couple of holdouts to vote in favor of removal, the legislation said that the new flag must include the words “In God We Trust”, which violates the tenets of good flag design that says that there should be no words.
The NPR radio program RadioLab had a gripping story about how the change came about, starting with John Hawkins, a black student at the University of Mississippi (known as Ole Miss) in the early 1980s, who unexpectedly became a cheerleader. There had never been a black cheerleader before at the university. He refused to take part in the tradition of male cheerleaders carrying a massive confederate flag across the stadium at the start of football games. That triggered a huge controversy with KKK marches, massive protests by white students, a large number of whom at one point marched towards his fraternity while chanting and had to be stopped by police, and death threats. As a result of the tumult, the college president declared that the confederate flag would no longer be an official college symbol nor used at college events and it came down. But individual students were still allowed to carry the flag. Since the flag was still there in the state flag, it could still be seen on the flagpole in front of the college administration building. That changed in 2015 with the massacre in a church where nine black people were killed during a prayer meeting. Photos turned up of him wrapping himself with the confederate flag. As a result, Ole Miss decided to remove the state flag, leaving an empty flagpole. Other businesses and institutions started to follow suit.
Also in the story is Laurin Stennis, the granddaughter of John Stennis, a long-time US senator from Mississippi who was a strong believer in segregation and in the inferiority of black people. Laurin abhorred her grandfather’s views and became a writer for a progressive news organization. She set about trying to design a new flag that would not have the racist connotations of the old that could be adopted.
This story of how a deeply entrenched symbol of racism was suddenly abandoned is very nicely told and well worth listening to. Or you can read the transcript.