By Adam Ganucheau
A police officer murdered George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis. A team of police officers killed Breonna Taylor in her apartment in Kentucky. White men killed Ahmaud Arbery while he was jogging in Georgia. Millions of Americans had taken to the streets to protest police brutality in a national reckoning on racism.
Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, who had been the most prominent Republican to publicly call for removing the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag but struggled to get buy-in from his GOP legislative colleagues, was watching intently.
“George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, all the other incidents happened, and we weren’t even supposed to be in session to begin with,” Gunn said. “But there we were, and there the nation was. There clearly was a window of opportunity to discuss the flag again.”
On June 6, 2020, several young Black organizers gathered at least 3,000 Mississippians in downtown Jackson for a Black Lives Matter rally. Historians suggested that the rally was the largest civil rights demonstration in Mississippi since the 1960s. One of the organizers’ main demands to government leaders: Change the state flag.
“Mississippi is a state that I love,” Jarrius Adams, one of the organizers of the BLM rally, told Mississippi Today at the time. “But with the current state flag, Mississippi struggles to love me back … Elected officials who choose to stay silent on this issue are cowards. (They) have a responsibility to ensure anything that represents our state represents us equitably.”
In the crowd that day was state Rep. Chris Bell, a Democrat who represents the city of Jackson. Moved by the rally and the moment, Bell got to work when he returned to the Capitol two days later.
One of dozens of Black lawmakers who had unsuccessfully filed bills to change the state flag in previous sessions, Bell met with eight other House members — including four newly-elected white Republicans — in a closed-door meeting on June 8. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss how, if at all, they could carry out the demand of those activists.
The 10 attendees of that meeting were Democratic Reps. Chris Bell, Jarvis Dortch, Robert Johnson, Tracey Rosebud, Jeffery Harness and Shanda Yates; and Republican Reps. Missy McGee, Kent McCarty, Jansen Owen and Sam Creekmore. The meeting served as one of the first earnest bipartisan efforts to change the flag since 2001.
“We all knew that in order for us to have any shot at changing the flag, it had to have the approval of the speaker,” Bell said. “We knew how critical Speaker Gunn was to this movement.”
So three representatives of the group — Bell, Johnson and Yates — scheduled a meeting with Gunn in his office.
“(Yates) looked at me and said, ‘We want to change the flag,’” Gunn recalled. “I chuckled a little bit and said, ‘Well I do, too. It’s no secret where I stand.’ Then she said, ‘I think we need to bring it to a vote.’”
“Well, how many votes do you have?” Gunn asked. Yates said that she thought she had four Republican votes along with the House’s 39 Black Democrats and five white Democrats.
The fact that the lawmakers even had the ability to meet that day was unusual. In any other year, the Legislature would’ve adjourned its session in April. But because COVID-19 was ripping through the state, lawmakers delayed the session to resume during the early summer. They’d returned to Jackson on June 8, and they had a little less than a month to pass the state’s budget and allocate more than $1 billion in federal coronavirus relief.
Because of the delayed session, the Legislature’s deadlines to introduce general bills had all passed. That meant by a two-thirds vote of both the House and the Senate would have to agree to suspend the legislative rules to even consider a flag bill.
In other words, a flag bill that would normally require just 62 votes to pass the House actually required 81 votes to be considered during the unusual June reconvening.
The group of House Democrats sitting in Gunn’s office on June 8 had counted just 48 votes to change the flag — 33 votes shy of the necessary margin.
“They were well short of the votes not only to suspend the rules, but even just to change the flag (with the simple majority),” Gunn said. “I told them they were welcome to keep counting votes, and I pledged that I would ask around and gauge the temperature among the Republicans.
“To be honest, I didn’t believe on that day that they — we, anyone — could get anywhere close to the votes we needed,” Gunn said.
The next day, on June 9, Mississippi Today first reported details of that meeting with Gunn. The headline read: “Bipartisan group of lawmakers, with Speaker Gunn’s blessing, pushes to change Mississippi state flag.” Mississippi Today’s political team carefully vetted the story before publication and cited information from multiple unnamed sources with direct knowledge of the meeting.
Thousands of Mississipians, spurred by the explosive news, flooded the phones and email inboxes of legislators. The article published just as the House was going into the morning session on June 9. When Gunn stepped off the floor 90 minutes later, he had received 582 emails from Mississippians about the flag.
Gunn, meanwhile, privately fumed about the publication of the article. He felt it inaccurately portrayed his position, and he felt betrayed by the attendees of that meeting who talked to a reporter. Allies of Gunn’s publicly suggested that the article likely killed any chances of legislative action on the flag.
“That article publishing made my job of getting Republicans a whole lot harder,” Gunn told Mississippi Today earlier this year. “The rest of the Republicans who really didn’t want to deal with the issue became really suspicious. They thought I was having secret meetings and counting secret votes. That wasn’t the case. It just created an uphill battle (getting the Republican votes).”
Nevertheless, Gunn — who later acknowledged the Mississippi Today article and the reaction to it “certainly helped get the ball rolling” — still made good on the pledge he’d made to the small group of lawmakers during the initial meeting.
“The next day (June 10), I brought in three trusted Republican members,” Gunn said. “I brought up the possibility of changing the flag. There wasn’t pushback, per se, but there was caution. They said they didn’t think the caucus could get there, especially with the number of votes needed to suspend the rules. Still, I told them to ask around (the Republican caucus). They did, and there was no overwhelmingly positive support.”
The Democrats who had met with Gunn that week — a couple of whom had leaked details of that first meeting — could only trust that the speaker was holding up his end of the bargain.
“We all wanted the flag to change, but we knew we didn’t have much sway over the Republicans,” Bell said. “You just didn’t have a lot of Democrats running around bothering Republicans because in that meeting, Gunn told us, ‘I don’t have the votes, but I can poll the caucus.’ Knowing where he had been on the flag, that gave us faith in him to go to his caucus and try. Honestly, (Gunn’s position on the flag) was the only hope I had to lean on at that point.”
Outside the Capitol that week, pressure began mounting. Several organizations publicly called for lawmakers to change the flag. Lobbyists began pulling lawmakers aside on behalf of their corporate clients to take the temperature of a possible change. A political consulting group in Jackson released polling that showed attitudes of voters were shifting toward changing the flag.
But sensing little support or enthusiasm among his caucus, no major movement in the House occurred. Gunn began feeling dispirited — that same feeling he’d felt the previous three sessions since he’d publicly called for changing the flag.
On June 11, two days after the Mississippi Today article came out, Gunn hosted a Republican House Caucus meeting on the second floor of the Capitol to discuss state budget priorities. Near the end of the meeting, a Republican House member raised his hand and addressed the elephant in the room: He asked Gunn if the speaker was working to change the flag.
Gunn, still angry about the article and doubtful that he could come up with the votes, gave an unplanned but heartfelt five-minute speech about his position on the flag.
The speech — now a thing of Mississippi political lore — is remembered differently by different Republicans who were in the room. Asked to recount the speech, Gunn smiled and said simply: “It was all about the legacy that we were leaving for our children and grandchildren and the history that was coming.”
“The flag is going to change today, it’s going to change a year from now, it’s going to change 20 years from now, but it’s going to change. My children and my grandchildren one day are going to want to know what Philip Gunn did the day he had a chance to do something about it. I want them to be proud of what I did, of where I was and what their Pop did the day he had a chance.
So for me, I’ve got to vote to change the flag. If it beats me in the next election, it beats me. But having the reputation and the respect of my family is more important to me than winning an election. One day, this flag is going to be viewed in a very negative light. And if I am not viewed as having supported its change, then my children and my grandchildren are going to be embarrassed by me. I feel that way. That’s just how I feel.
I want each of you to think about that, go home this weekend and think about that. The driving force for me is the legacy that I leave my children and my grandchildren. There is no plan right now to take this thing up. If we have the votes to take it up, we will take it up. But as we sit here today, we don’t have the votes. There’s no plan to take it up without the votes, but I want each of you to go home this weekend and think about where you want to be on this — where history will show you were on this.”
Philip Gunn's speech to the House Republican Caucus on June 11, 2020, recounted by Gunn to Mississippi Today
Gunn didn’t know it at the time, but that spur-of-the-moment speech laid the groundwork for several critical House votes that would flip over the next couple weeks.
“There were things the speaker understood and we understood that had to happen,” Bell said. “That started with him needing to convince a lot of Republicans to do this thing they didn’t want to do. I give him credit because that week, it all started falling into place.”
Part three of the Mississippi Today’s series will publish on June 30, part four on July 1, and part five on July 2.