TUPELO • With the sun glinting off the concrete but the heat momentarily lifted by a light wind blowing, voices lifted in the air, voices singing the civil rights-era anthem “A Change is Gonna Come.”
One day after the Mississippi Legislature approved a bill to retire the state’s controversial flag containing the Confederate battle emblem, flags came down from municipal property in the city of Tupelo.
Once Gov. Tate Reeves signs the bill, as he is expected to do, all state flags must be removed from public property within 15 days. A new flag will go before voters for approval in November.
But Monday, the hope of the future and the memory of the past mingled as young and old celebrated and sang. Some had tears in their eyes. Others relayed memories of an era in which the racist legal mechanisms of the Jim Crow South divided public facilities and relegated Black Mississippians to second-class citizenship.
“To God be the glory!” said Bishop Clarence Parks, a Black minister who was joined by certain other area clergy who have long been fixtures of the city’s activist circles.
A few blocks away, white Tupelo businessman Jack Reed Jr. sat in his second-floor office, overlooking Main Street. Photos and newspaper clipping are tacked up on his wall. Many of them feature Reed’s father, Jack Reed Sr.
The younger Reed has had plenty of cause in recent days to remember his father, who co-chaired with former Gov. William Winter a 17-member commission that recommended that voters replace the state’s current flag in 2001. That effort failed.
“He knew it would be an uphill battle, but he had no idea the opposition would be so vehement,” Reed Jr. said, recalling the experiences of his father, who died in 2016. “Right off the bat, the first public meeting was so acrimonious.”
Boycotts were called of the Reed family business, a department store that has long anchored downtown Tupelo. The Sons of Confederate Veterans picketed outside the business. There were phone threats.
Nearly two decades later, the younger Reed said he was “misty eyed” to see his father’s hopes for a new state flag at last fulfilled. He believes that the massive groundswell of pressure by young activists, business interests, athletic figures, religious denominations and other organizations finally helped create a coalition too large to ignore.
“It was just a confluence of so much,” Reed Jr. said. “I felt it.”
Even as older eyes like Parks and Reed survey an achievement for which they have fought for decades, new figures fresh off a wave of activism sweeping the country are also taking stock of a victory won.
Organizers of Black Lives Matter protests in Northeast Mississippi believe their collective efforts across the state helped yield and sustain momentum that pushed a flag change back onto the agenda of the political power players.
Nia Colom, organizer of the “I Can’t Breathe” rally in Ripley earlier this month, believes God is intervening and sees this as a starting point in the right direction for Mississippi to “get caught up with the rest of America.”
In late May, a Black man named George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota after a police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. Furor over his death led to a wave of protests and demonstrations across the country, even in small, rural communities in Northeast Mississippi.
Now, Colom and others think the flag change is one tangible achievement of their efforts, though they hope for more.
“It’s exactly one of the reasons why we protest,” Colom said. “For peace, for equality and I just think it’s a step towards unifying the state of Mississippi for those people who choose change.”
In Corinth, Jade Moment helped organize a protest demonstration and credited the intervention of businesses and athletic organizations for amplifying grassroots efforts.
“(Sports organizations) listened to us and heard us, and they helped a lot with the flag being taken down,” Moment said. “They helped us get our voices heard.”
But organizers said their work is not over and are urging people to continue the momentum. Colom said more community events to bring peace and unity will continue. Moment hopes people will be inspired to host sit downs with police departments to help against police brutality and is planning one such event.
In Tupelo, planning for the future is also underway. Demarous Stegall helped organize a recent protest march in Tupelo. He said he has never seen such clear unity in his 23 years and hopes the energy of the moment will encourage civic leaders and organizers to seek support from the young.
“This was just a symbol,” Stegall said. “Now that that symbol has been pushed across, I think it’s really time for us as a state to put our money where our mouth is and to really start addressing the issues of all unrepresented people, groups in the state.”