Vicksburg residents, lawmakers celebrate historic votes changing state’s flag
In 2001, then State Rep. George Flaggs Jr. from Vicksburg was surprised, not necessarily by the outcome, but by the margin by which a referendum that would have changed Mississippi’s state flag was defeated.
“I never would have dreamed the margin would be what it is,” Flaggs said as he watched election results flow in on Tuesday, April 17, 2001. “I really thought Mississippians wanted to move ahead with a new flag.”
Sunday, with separate votes by the Mississippi House of Representatives and the Mississippi State Senate, and an expected signature by Gov. Tate Reeves in the coming days, Mississippians now 19 years later are moving ahead with a new flag.
In overwhelming votes Sunday, lawmakers in both the House and the Senate passed legislation that would do away with the state’s current flag — which in its upper left corner contains the Confederate Battle Flag — and establish a commission to select a new design that voters will have the chance to approve in November.
The commission will be made up of three members appointed by Speaker of the House Philip Gunn; three members appointed by President of the Senate Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann; and three members appointed by Reeves. The legislation also calls on the Department of Archives and History to adopt a plan for “a prompt, dignified and respectful removal of the former official Mississippi state flag” no later than 15 days after the legislation becomes law.
The legislation mandates that the new design contain the words “In God We Trust,” and must not contain the Confederate emblem. If the design is not approved by voters in November, another new design will be created and voted on. Either way, the current flag will be retired once Reeves signs the bill.
Earlier Sunday, the House of Representatives passed the measure by a sizeable 91-23 margin. Hours later, the Senate passed the measure by a vote of 37-14.
In the House, State Rep. Oscar Denton and State Rep. Kevin Ford, both of Vicksburg, voted for the legislation. In the Senate, the bill was sponsored and pushed through by State Sen. Briggs Hopson III of Vicksburg. And, overseeing the proceedings in the Senate was Hosemann, a Vicksburg native.
“I’ve seen leaders around our state; people in business and education and charity and civic work around our state who have come forward and I want to thank them for the strong positions they have taken to help support a change in our flag that will unify our state,” Hopson said in addressing the Senate before it voted on the legislation. “I know how tough it is for some of them too, but they have been willing to take the risks as you have a taken the risk to say it is time for Mississippi to meet this challenge head-on and it is time for the Legislature to fulfill its duty under the Republic to which we serve to place a new flag up on top of this capitol for the people of this great state.”
Hopson, using a football analogy, said state lawmakers had “punted the ball away” too many times when it came to addressing the issue of the state flag. He ended his comments by saying, “Let’s push this ball across the goal line and claim this victory for the state of Mississippi by creating a new flag and it starts right here, right now.”
Even though the House and Senate both passed resolutions Saturday to allow for Sunday’s votes, Hopson said there was still some doubt whether the votes were there to pass the final legislation.
“You never know. I certainly felt better after having the resolution passed (Saturday), but I did know there were a couple of members who said they would vote for the resolution but that they would not vote for the bill on final passage,” Hopson said. “But, I was cautiously optimistic that we had the votes to get the bill passed.”
Denton said Hopson should be applauded for his efforts in getting the measure passed in the Senate.
“Our senator did a great job,” said Denton, who was in the Senate when the legislation passed Sunday. “Briggs did an outstanding job. He was precise; he said it’s time. He got it done, now we can move forward.”
A new state flag for Mississippi has been one of the issues Denton has promoted since he was elected to the House in 2013.
“I have presented a flag bill for seven years, but it always died in committee,” Denton said. “But that doesn’t matter now; we’re on our way.”
It didn’t take long for community leaders in Vicksburg to celebrate Sunday’s votes.
“I love it; I love that we’re going to change the flag,” said Bobbie Bingham Morrow, Vicksburg NAACP president. “I commend the legislators who understand. I believe the community gets it now that the flag represented a certain part of the population but not all of the population.”
North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield, who recently marked his 15th year as a part of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, said changing the state’s flag was a long time coming.
“I was like a lot of other people in Mississippi, just waiting to see what would happen. The Legislature came together and the majority chose to go a different route,” Mayfield said. “I think the majority of the people were ready to move forward and change something that has divided the state for many years. It was a tough decision to make, and I think the Legislature coming together will move Mississippi toward a brighter light.”
The votes Sunday were also celebrated by a descendant of the Confederacy, Bertram Hayes-Davis, whose great-great-grandfather Jefferson Davis was the president of the Confederacy.
“The Legislature has done the right thing at the right time. It’s great. Great news,” Hayes-Davis, who lives in Vicksburg, said. He also said it is important, too, that the flag be remembered for its history. “It will be removed as the state flag, but it will always be a historic flag in the state of Mississippi and that heritage will be maintained. I think that is very important because it has been around a long time.”
For Flaggs, who has been among lawmakers on the local and state level pushing for change for decades, the surprise he expressed in 2001 was replaced recently by an expectation that change was coming.
A number of influential organizations, from the Mississippi Baptist Convention to the state’s college sports coaches, have voiced support for changing the flag in recent weeks. Star Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill said he would not play football if the flag was not changed. The Southeastern Conference, Conference USA and the NCAA all exerted economic pressure by announcing they would withhold championship events from Mississippi until a change was made.
“I never doubted there would be a change,” Flaggs said Sunday, moments after the vote in the Senate was recorded. “I do think the stars started lining up, from George Floyd’s murder to the athlete at Mississippi State, to the coaches, to the legislative leaders, to the communities, I think it became a movement in the right direction and in the right direction for Mississippi.”
And Flaggs said, too, that it was fitting that two leaders from Vicksburg — speaking of Hopson and Hosemann — were at the forefront of the historic change.
“This time, it had the right people, in the right places at the right time,” Flaggs said. “I hope this is the beginning of a new era. It’s a great day for Vicksburg and a great day for Mississippi.”
The Vicksburg Post’s Tim Reeves and John Surratt contributed to this report.