The now-retired Mississippi state flag – which lost its official status after being struck down by an act of the Mississippi Legislature – was never a point of pride for Juan Barnett, a veteran of the United States Army and a state senator since 2016.
Barnett, a former mayor of Heidelberg, represents Senate District 34, which includes portions of Forrest, Jasper and Jones counties.
He proudly served his country, but he did so while knowing that his home state still exhibited symbols of its membership in the Confederacy. The flag, which houses the Confederate battle flag within its design, is one of the most prominent of those symbols.
For Barnett, a Black man, the flag symbolizes hatred and years of oppression. A Democrat and member of the Legislative Black Caucus, he lobbied his colleagues for its removal, and, on Sunday, he was proud to cast a vote in favor of its demise.
Prior to the vote, Barnett addressed his colleagues in a floor speech.
“In 1990, I was deployed to Iraq ... and we took an oath that we would defend the United States of America under one flag. But as a young African American man, it still troubled me ... because the state I loved had something that didn’t unify us,” he said.
He then questioned his fellow lawmakers.
“How long will we stand and say that we are a United States of America ... but an un-united state of Mississippi?” he asked.
Thirty-seven of his state Senate colleagues joined him in his affirmative vote, which was far more than the simple majority needed to pass House Bill 1796, which serves as the official mechanism to remove and replace the flag.
In the state House of Representatives, an overwhelmingly majority – 91-23 – also approved the bill, and Gov. Tate Reeves signed it on Tuesday after promising to do so on Saturday.
The bill was written by Philip Gunn, the Republican speaker of the state House, and, under its terms, the current state flag, which was adopted in February 1894, will be removed from government properties and archived by the state Department of Archives and History.
The bill gave the department 15 days to do this, but many local governments – including the City of Petal and the Forrest County Board of Supervisors – immediately removed flags from their respective properties Tuesday afternoon.
A nine-person commission will be created to design a new option for the state flag, which will be presented to voters at the ballot box on Nov. 3. The commission has until Sept. 14 to present its design, which must include the words “In God We Trust.” The Confederate battle flag must not be a part of the new design.
Reeves, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Gunn will appoint three people each to the commission, and the governor’s appointees must include someone from the Mississippi Economic Council, the Mississippi Arts Commission, and the Archives and History Department.
Another Pine Belt legislator, Republican Chris McDaniel of Senate District 42, unsuccessfully lobbied for his colleagues to reject the bill and push the issue to a referendum. He said voters should be allowed to decide the future of the 1894 flag.
McDaniel, who represents portions of Forrest and Jones counties, initially said that he and other senators would “hold the line” in their opposition of the bill, but that support seemed to crumble as the weekend proceeded. He said the flag debate is a symptom of “the rise of a very intolerant faction of the American left.”
“Look, these are the days you find out who has a backbone,” said McDaniel. “These are the days you will see who has the real metal to stick out a tough issue.”
Throughout the weekend, McDaniel made several public pleas to his colleagues in the well of the Senate, but those efforts ultimately failed.
In a Monday Facebook post, McDaniel said, “Our history is only as safe as our firm commitment to stand up to the mob,” and he released a video with information about a possible referendum – initiated by “the people” – to “put this issue on the ballot.”
“If that’s something you have an interest in, let me know,” he added.
If voters reject the commission’s design in November, commissioners will reconvene and present another design option for the flag to legislators during their 2021 session.
The debate over the controversial Confederate-based flag intensified in recent weeks following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in late May. The Floyd murder placed a spotlight on perceived police abuses, ongoing civil rights struggles and Confederate iconography, and national – and statewide – protests followed.
Mississippi’s flag has been a lightning rod for controversy for many years, and voters overwhelmingly rejected a 2001 vote to change it. In 2015, after a mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, photos of the gunman proudly posing with the Confederate battle flag were found; at this time, many people called on Mississippi legislators to retire the flag.
Those attempts – along with various tries to organize referendums to remove the flag – failed, but legislators faced new pressures this year as groups like the Mississippi Baptist Convention joined the call for the flag to be removed. Prominent businesses, including Hancock Whitney, C Spire and Sanderson Farms, pushed for a change, as did the NCAA, the Southeastern Conference and Conference USA.
Those athletic groups promised boycotts, and the Mississippi Economic Council warned of serious economic reprisals if legislators did not take immediate action.
Legislators said over the weekend they had received hundreds of thousands of calls, emails and other messages about the flag issue, and the inside and outside pressures prompted the quick legislative action. Legislators were supposed to end their 2020 session on Friday, but the issue prompted a rare weekend session.
In order to change the flag, lawmakers first had to suspend their rules in both chambers, and this action required a two-thirds majority vote in both the state House and state Senate. This action was quickly accomplished on Saturday, which allowed for committee approval and floor debate on Sunday.