Local lawmakers who supported removing the Confederate battle emblem from Mississippi’s state flag said the move will bring new opportunities to the state under a unifying banner, while those who opposed said politicians circumvented the will of the people with their historic votes this weekend.
House Bill 1796 passed through the House 92-23 and the Senate with 37-14, representing an overwhelming majority to remove the flag that has flown over the state since 1894, and has in recent years been seen as a symbol of division among its citizens.
Local lawmakers voted down racial lines on the flag. Reps. Angela Cockerham, I-Magnolia, and Daryl Porter, D-Summit, and Sen. Tammy Witherspoon, D-Magnolia, who are black, voted in favor of changing the flag, while Reps. Vince Mangold, R-Brookhaven, Sam Mims, R-McComb, and Bill Pigott, R-Tylertown, who are white, voted against it.
Cockerham said she had always supported changing the flag.
“This has been a topic of discussion since I was elected, and it was time for us to change our flag,” she said. “We need a flag that unites our state, and it is time to get that accomplished.”
Porter, in his first term as a state representative, said he was proud to be a part of the legislative action, adding that he is grateful to the House and Senate for their work to get the bill passed.
“I am honored; I am proud to be a part of such a historic moment in Mississippi's history,” he said. “We always talk about the progress that needs to be made, and we took a step in the right direction. This is something that needed to be done for a long time. I am truly proud of what we accomplished this weekend.”
Gov. Tate Reeves has long held the position that the decision to change the state flag should be done only by the will of the voters, but on Friday, calling the debate over the flag as divisive as the banner itself, Reeves said he would sign a bill if lawmakers produced one.
After Reeves signs the bill, a nine-person committee will receive designs and put on the Nov. 3 ballot. The Confederate symbol won’t be on the new design, but it will contain the words “In God We Trust.”
Sojourner took to Facebook to opine about the bill and the votes.
“I’m sorry we weren’t successful in giving you a voice on this issue. I promise we tried,” she posted along with the list of senators and their votes.
She said before the vote that “they will almost certainly not be successful,” noting that the bill needed a simple majority of just 27 votes to pass.
“Yesterday, we only needed three more senators to stand with us, to get to the 17 votes needed, to stop the vote from coming forward,” she said.
Porter said to Sojourner’s point that the people will get their right to choose on the flag in November, when the state votes on a new flag, adding that as a legislator, he and the other representatives and senators represent the voice of the people who elected them.
“Despite what some people may say, the people do have a right to choose,” he said. “When they went in and checked the box next to my name, they voted for me to represent them as an elected official. I was their voice, so they had a voice in it.”
Mangold said it is a matter of letting the people have a say in whether to change the flag.
“We just got through with campaigning and I had a bunch of conversations about the flag,” he said. “Each time I answered and the answer was the same. I felt the people need to vote on it.
“It was a momentous occasion. You had some of the state feeling hurt and others in the state jumping for joy. The flag was different for everybody.”
Witherspoon said she believes the change was a needed for the state to heal and move forward.
“It means jobs. It means opportunity. It means we aren’t last anymore, and it means good things for the State of Mississippi,” she said.
Witherspoon said the momentum to change the flag has been around for a long time and was proud that it happened while she was in office.
“Mississippi is moving up now, and we are on the right path. We are going to look for great things to come to Mississippi,” she said. “I saw it coming, and I knew that it would come a time that we can’t ignore it anymore.
“The flag was a big sore — a scar on our state, so I am glad my Republican collogues saw it and wanted something better for the state, and I applaud them for standing up for Mississippi.”
Mims said he voted against the bill because the people of Mississippi previously voted to keep the flag in 2001.
“I am not in favor of changing our Mississippi state flag,” he said. “The citizens of our state spoke on this matter at the ballot box, and while that vote took place several years ago, it is my opinion that the flag should not be changed unless the citizens by referendum choose to put it on the ballot themselves.”
He said that he heard the cries to change the flag but felt the pandemic and social unrest in the state and country were more important than it at the moment.
“I think the state legislature should focus our efforts in the remaining days of this legislative session on preparing a budget for the next fiscal year and determining how to best spend the CARES Act funds that were sent to Mississippi to assist and protect our citizens,” he said.
Messages for Pigott were not immediately returned.