JACKSON • Momentum built rapidly in the past month for Mississippi to decommission the last state flag in the U.S. with the Confederate battle emblem.
Marching toward change took decades, and it took work by thousands. An important advocate was the late Democratic state Rep. Aaron Henry of Clarksdale.
“He deserves credit,” said current Democratic Rep. Bryant Clark of Pickens.
As part of a long effort by the Legislative Black Caucus, Clark researched bills that sought to change the flag. The earliest he found was filed by Henry in 1988.
Henry was elected to the 122-member House in 1979, joining a small number of other African Americans – including Clark’s father, Rep. Robert Clark of Ebenezer, who had been elected in 1967 as Mississippi’s first Black lawmaker of the 20th century.
Henry was deeply engaged in politics before arriving at the Capitol, having served as state NAACP president.
In 1963, Henry ran for governor in an unofficial “freedom” election to demonstrate that Black people were interested in voting, even as the state suppressed their rights. In 1964, Henry was a founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that challenged Mississippi’s all-white delegation to the Democratic National Convention.
Court-ordered redistricting in the early 1990s increased African American representation in the Legislature, bringing more voices for change in a state where nearly 40% of residents are Black. Henry was defeated in 1995 and died in 1997. Other lawmakers continued filing flag bills.
In response to a lawsuit filed by African American plaintiffs, the state Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the flag lacked official status. The design was put into law by white supremacist legislators in 1894. Justices said that when state laws were updated in 1906, sections describing the flag were not carried forward.
A commission held contentious public hearings about the flag in 2000, and the Legislature punted the issue onto a statewide ballot in 2001. By a wide margin, people voted to keep the old design rather than replace the Confederate canton with a blue field topped by stars representing Mississippi as the 20th state.
The flag issue was still broadly considered too volatile for legislators to touch, until the May 25 police custody death of an African American man in Minneapolis, George Floyd. That killing sparked international protests against racial injustice, including calls to remove Confederate symbols.
A groundswell of young activists, college athletes and leaders from business, religion, education and sports called on Mississippi to change the flag, providing momentum.
Legislators passed a bill June 28 to retire the old flag. A commission will design a new one without the Confederate symbol and with the phrase “In God We Trust.” That solo design will go on the Nov. 3 ballot. If voters reject it, the commission will draw a new design with the same guidelines.
Republican Gov. Tate Reeves signed the bill June 30, immediately removing the old flag as state symbol. On July 1, as required by the new law, the flag was retired in a “prompt, dignified and respectful” ceremony. The last two flags that flew over the Capitol and the last one that flew on a pole by it were folded and presented to House Speaker Philip Gunn, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Department of Archives and History director Katie Blount.
With a police escort, the three officials were driven to the two Mississippi history museums, where they presented the flags to Reuben Anderson, president of the Archives and History board of trustees. Anderson was the first African American justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court, serving from 1985 to 1991.
“It is the thrill of my life to accept these flags,” Anderson said.
He praised Gunn and Hosemann.
“What they went through to get this done is remarkable,” Anderson said. “As I look around, I think of the Legislature and the struggle that they went to, to get this done, particularly the Black Caucus, who started this generations ago.”