By Sid Salter
In any given publication since 1939, The Journal of Mississippi History has been an invaluable record of the institutional memory of the state of Mississippi. But few editions of the scholarly journal have been more valuable to Mississippians than is the current Vol. 84, No. 1 and No. 2 for the Spring and Summer of 2022.
The current edition chronicles the strange, often torturous path of the Mississippi Legislature to changing Mississippi’s state flag in 2020 and the strong roles played by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History – the Journal’s publisher – and the broader Mississippi Historical Society (organized in 1858) played in bringing that monumental change to fruition.
Mississippi’s former state flag was adopted in 1894, some 30 years after slavery was abolished. In 2000, the Mississippi Supreme Court, ruling in a lawsuit filed by the NAACP, found that the state technically had no official flag.
Yet the state’s white majority exhibited a stubborn insistence on clinging to the state’s 1894 Reconstruction Era state flag – which features in the canton corner the Beauregard Battle Flag (also known as the Confederate Battle Flag, the Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, and the Rebel Flag; used by some Mississippi troops in battle) – according to a 2018 Mississippi Historical Society article on the Mississippi flag by Millsaps College historian Stephanie Rolph.
From 1894 forward, state government either ignored protests about the state flag altogether or procedurally kicked the rusty can down the political road.
Former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove led the controversial 2001 statewide referendum that gave Mississippi voters an opportunity to change the state flag’s 1894 design to a new one which deleted the Confederate battle flag from the canton corner. Mississippi voters rejected the proposition of changing the state flag at the ballot box on April 17, 2001, by a 2-1 margin – 494,323 votes (64.31 percent) to 273,359 votes (35.61 percent).
Another former Democratic Mississippi governor, the late William Winter, should be remembered for his courage and tenacity on the issue of flag change in this state. He was fearless and doggedly determined.
But the flag change effort that succeeded came under Republican majorities in both houses of the Mississippi Legislature and with the GOP in control of the state’s executive branch offices. The change fomented in an odd combination of disparate but undeniably connected events. House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann did yeoman’s work on the issue.
The combination of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, the aftermath of the 2015 Dylann Roof massacre in South Carolina, the support of business and industrial groups, and increasing impatience by the NCAA and the Southeastern Conference with playing games in states with flags reflecting Confederate symbolisms – along with the express support of the state’s most influential religious groups – paved the way for political success on the issue that had been unlikely only months prior to the legislative votes being taken.
Author Jere Nash aptly and fairly tells the story of that political process. Nash worked as campaign manager former Democratic Gov. Ray Mabus during the 1980s. He served as deputy state auditor and as Mabus’ director of policy and chief of staff. Nash went on to work for a number of Democratic candidates and progressive political causes.
Nash co-authored the splendid bipartisan history Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976-2006 alongside Republican political consultant Andy Taggart in 2006. The pair also co-wrote Mississippi Fried Politics: Tall Tales from the Back Rooms in 2008.
In 2020, the Mississippi House voted 92 to 23 and the state Senate voted 37 to 14 for House Bill 1796 to retire the former state flag and design a new one. Katie Blount, the executive director of the MDAH, wrote about that portion of the flag transition that required that agency’s considerable finesse in the journal.
While all are worthy, the current edition of The Journal of Mississippi History should be a part of the libraries of all serious students of history, politics, and social sciences in this state. It is a fascinating and important read. For more information, contact www.mississippihistory.org or www.mdah.ms.gov.