BILOXI – A political split of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus over a boycott of the Southern Legislative Conference led to a bipartisan conversation on race and the state flag Monday among about two dozen state legislators.
The drama started May 1 when black caucus leaders announced they would boycott the annual Southern Legislative Conference, held this week in Biloxi and chaired this year by House Speaker Philip Gunn.
The purpose of the boycott, black caucus leaders said, was to bring awareness to the state flag, the last in the nation containing the Confederate battle emblem, which black caucus members have continually tried to change in recent years.
But 13 members of the 52-member black caucus – who jokingly referred to themselves Monday as “Gunn’s 13” – decided to attend the conference.
Rep. Greg Holloway, D-Hazlehurst, first suggested that Gunn – the only white Republican leader to publicly state a desire to change the flag – call upon the services of the University of Mississippi-based William Winter Institute, which specializes in leading planned discussions on race-related issues.
In all, about 50 lawmakers from 15 states attended the session, and at least 23 were from Mississippi.
“I thought the session was fantastic,” Gunn said. “I think over time, as people begin to understand each other, their hearts will change. They come maybe to a greater understanding of how their colleagues feel, and that’s how you get to the process of (changing the flag).”
“When is that going to happen? I can’t say,” he continued. “But I’ll tell you this: It’s not going to happen if we don’t have conversations about it.”
The boycott prompted drama that played out in Mississippi media over several weeks. Some 50 anti-state flag protesters organized by the Mississippi Rising Coalition disrupted the opening reception of the conference in Gulfport on Saturday night.
After Gunn announced the addition of the Winter Institute session on race relations to the conference agenda, black caucus leadership took credit for that move in a press release last week, saying the boycott “forced SLC to modify its published agenda and include a discussion about race relations.”
“The people who are standing here now (those who chose to attend) are the reasons these conversations are taking place – not those who are not here,” said black caucus member Rep. Kathy Sykes, D-Jackson. “They had absolutely nothing to do with the (Winter Institute) session we just had. It’s wrong of them to act like they had something to do with the session, and they’re not even in the room. If you’re not in the room, how can you have an impact?”
Gunn echoed that sentiment.
“The ones who came today and participated in both sides of the issue are working to address (the state flag issue),” Gunn said. “Those who stayed home are choosing not to participate. We’ve got to talk. We’ve got to understand each other. To do nothing and stay home is not going to do that.”
Though the session was closed to the press, several people inside the session recounted how the event unfolded to Mississippi Today: First, the group of about 50 legislators from several states listened to Winter Institute leaders explain their process of trust building that they’ve used in dozens of communities in Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee.
The group was then broken into small groups of people of different races and backgrounds. In those small groups, attendees were asked two questions: “When did you first realize that race mattered?” and “What does the flag mean to you personally?”
Lawmakers described those conversations as earnest, brutally honest and emotional.
Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs, a former black caucus member who served 26 years in the Legislature, called the session “one of the most productive discussions on race I’ve ever been in.” Twelve state lawmakers, white and black, interviewed afterward said they regarded the session as positive.
The Winter Institute’s work, including its work to address Confederate monuments in New Orleans, does not push particular ideas or outcomes, according to current and former Winter Institute leaders and community leaders who have hired the group. Instead, the group works to host constructive, civil conversations that include a diverse sampling of stakeholders in a host community.
Of the at least 23 Mississippi lawmakers who attended, 11 were white Republicans, and 12 were black Democrats. In all, about 50 people participated in the session.
A list of Mississippi lawmakers who attended is appended to this story.
“I heard today – I continue to hear – to some folks, it is genuinely offensive and hurtful to them. And that hurts me to think that,” said Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, who is white and has publicly supported keeping the current state flag. “I think having these conversations is a healthy thing to do … You could remove the flag, but if you don’t change the way someone feels about their brother or sister or fellow Mississippian, what good have you done?”
“I thought (the session) was productive and positive,” said Rep. Jason White, R-West, the chairman of House Rules committee, where dozens of anti-flag bills have died in the past two years. “It’s not necessarily about the flag – it’s about working together on moving forward. Maybe conversations like this can help move the needle so that maybe the flag can move to the background.”
“I thought a lot of people were very open,” said Rep. Roun McNeal, R-Leakesville, who is one of the few white Republicans to vote for measures favoring removal of the state flag. “I hope that groups like this, where people of different perspectives get together and hear stories, will help make people a little bit more sympathetic to points of view that either they haven’t heard before or deeply considered before.”
Black caucus members who were present Monday said they did not believe their presence and participation in the Winter Institute session would hurt their standing with the black caucus leadership.
“We are one caucus. We have two different approaches, but we all have one goal,” Holloway said. “The only difference is a basic ideological difference with the leadership about coming to the conference. We believe that in order to make real change, you need to be at the table and have your voices heard.”
Confirmed attendees from Mississippi (list may not be complete):
House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton
Rep. Jason White, R-West
Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton
Rep. Greg Holloway, D-Hazlehurst
Rep. Debra Gibbs, D-Jackson
Rep. Deborah Dixon, D-Raymond
Rep. Karl Gibbs, D-West Point
Rep. Abe Hudson, D-Shelby
Rep. Bubba Carpenter, R-Burnsville
Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach
Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula
Rep. Greg Snowden, R-Meridian
Rep. John Read, R-Gautier
Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland
Rep. Kathy Sykes, D-Jackson
Rep. Credell Calhoun, D-Jackson
Rep. Scott Bounds, R-Philadelphia
Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven
Rep. Randy Rushing, R-Decatur
Rep. Cedric Burnett, D-Tunica
Rep. Randy Boyd, R-Mantachie
Rep. Sara Thomas, D-Indianola
Rep. Robert Huddleston, D-Sumner