Prior to 2001, both Georgia and Mississippi faced constant battles over the state flag. Georgia’s governor pushed legislators to change the flag while Mississippi put it to a vote. The debate still rages in Mississippi while Georgians have moved on.

About the time in 2001 the Mississippi Legislature was scheduling a referendum to let voters decide on whether to replace the state flag, the Georgia General Assembly was passing a bill to change its flag.

The two banners both prominently featured the Confederate battle emblem in their designs. The Mississippi flag still does. The Georgia flag does not.

Bobby Harrison

Before the pivotal year of 2001, both states faced constant political fights over their flags. Those fights continue in Mississippi.

They have been renewed in recent days in the Mississippi Legislature after nationwide protests over the issue of police brutality against African Americans – intensified by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of law enforcement recorded in graphic detail via cellphone videos.

It might be of interest to recall what happened in 2001 in the two Southern states.

In Georgia, Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes, a former lawmaker, used his legislative experience to guide to passage with stunning speed a bill to change the state flag.

At the time, what Barnes accomplished was hailed by civil rights leaders and others.

But a year later, Barnes lost his re-election effort to Republican Sonny Perdue, who campaigned on a promise to allow Georgians to vote on whether they wanted to restore the state flag that had been removed at Barnes’ behest.

As governor, Perdue was successful in pushing through legislation to create a flag referendum. But Perdue was not successful in getting the Legislature to agree to place on the election ballot the flag containing the Confederate battle emblem.

The flag adopted by Georgia voters was essentially patterned after the first official flag of the Confederacy, but not the battle cross that was most closely associated with the South in the Civil War. The flag that was approved is predominately red and white with 13 stars in a circle in the upper left corner of the banner said to represent the 13 original colonies including Georgia. In that circle is the Georgia state seal and the familiar words “In God we trust.”

Barnes’ effort was viewed as a success since the symbol representing hate and racism in the eyes of many was removed. But the replacement of that flag is viewed as one of the factors costing Barnes his re-election bid since changing it angered many Georgians.

In Mississippi, then-Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove created a flag commission. The commission, after contentious meetings throughout the state, recommended a vote to allow Mississippians to decide between the old flag, including its Confederate cross, and a new design.

Some argued that the commission should have recommended that the Legislature change the flag. It may be important to remember that the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the state did not have an official flag because the Legislature omitted the flag statute when it was renewing laws in the early 1900s. Apparently for decades no one noticed this oversight.

But in 2001, that was supposed to be fixed. The Legislature voted to hold the flag referendum where the old flag won by a landslide with 64 percent of the vote.

A member of the House, lamenting the recent controversy over the Mississippi flag, complained that if the issue had not been placed on the ballot in 2001 it would be easier to change it now. That referendum, he said, created a precedent that makes it difficult for legislators to bypass the voters on the combustible issue.

But the truth is that in 2001 there was no easy way, perhaps no way at all, to change the flag. The better path for those who wanted to eventually have a new flag might have been to do nothing in 2001 – just wait to see if a better opportunity came along.

Today nearly all Democrats – both black and white – support changing the flag. That was not the case in 2001 when Democrats held majorities in both chambers

Maybe, there were the votes in 2001 to get the bill through the House, though, Speaker Tim Ford did not want to force his members to vote on the controversial issue. He badly wanted a referendum.

Getting a proposal through the Senate would have been even more difficult. Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, the presiding officer, was the only one of the seven statewide elected Democrats not to endorse the new flag. By the way, she ran for and won her second term as lieutenant governor as a Republican.

Perhaps, the biggest irony is that Musgrove’s opponent in his re-election bid, Republican Haley Barbour, hammered him over the issue of the flag just like Perdue did Barnes.

The only difference is that Musgrove was hammered for trying to change the banner. Barnes was lambasted for changing it.

But they both lost.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.