After waffling for years, Gov. Tate Reeves signs bill to change state flag

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Tate Reeves prepares during the August 2019 GOP gubernatorial debate at WJTV studios.

Gov. Tate Reeves, who for years refused to take a stance on whether Mississippi should change its state flag, signed a bill that does just that on Tuesday in a private ceremony at the Governor’s Mansion.

“I know there are people of goodwill who are not happy to see this flag change,” Reeves said shortly before signing the bill into law on Tuesday. “They fear a chain reaction of events erasing our history — a history that is no doubt complicated and imperfect. I understand those concerns and am determined to protect Mississippi from that dangerous outcome.”

Reeves continued: “I also understand the need to commit the 1894 flag to history, and find a banner that is a better emblem for all Mississippi… A flag is a symbol of our present, of our people, and of our future. For those reasons, we need a new symbol.”

The signing on Tuesday — a historic moment as the last official step in removing the flag, which was adopted in 1894 and featured the Confederate battle emblem — comes after Reeves isolated himself from both sides of the flag debate. 

In all his public statements, including the one he gave shortly before he signed the bill on Tuesday, he equivocated and worked to plant one foot on each side of the debate. Reeves, who has consistently campaigned on not changing the flag except by referendum, refused to answer questions from reporters several times the past month about his personal stance on the flag.

In a June 10 press conference, Reeves dodged four separate questions about whether he felt the flag represented all Mississippians and should be changed.

“I believe that at some point people will want to change the flag, but it should be done by a vote of the people, not by a vote of politicians doing a backroom deal in Jackson,” Reeves said at the time. “I believe that if we’re going to have real change in our state, we’ve got to deal with the issue of the flag in such a way in which all Mississippians can come together at the end, rally around one another with whatever decision is made and work together to make a better Mississippi.”

After the Legislature passed the bill to change the state flag on Sunday, people close with Reeves have been privately telling some of the state’s top business leaders that the governor deserves credit for whipping the Senate votes necessary to remove the flag. Several Senate leaders scoffed at that notion, telling Mississippi Today the governor played no role in the effort.

On Sunday, shortly after the bill was signed in both chambers, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said he had not talked to Reeves on the historic weekend when lawmakers voted to remove the flag. When a reporter asked House Speaker Philip Gunn if he had spoken with Reeves over the weekend, Gunn paused a beat and simply replied: “No.”

During the debate, Reeves effectively earned the ire of both the hardcore supporters of the flag and the most outspoken critics of the banner.

“Tate Reeves is moved by money, not morality,” said Lea Campbell, the president of the Mississippi Rising Coalition, a group that actively lobbied lawmakers to change the flag. “So when this became an issue about economics, he caved. As long as he’s been a Mississippi politician, Reeves has demonstrated his commitment to defending the symbols of white supremacy and the systems that enforce it because it has been financially beneficial for him and his allies. The flag issue is no different.”

Campbell continued: “He knows that flag symbolizes the system of white supremacy and all the oppression, violence and terror used to enforce it, and he’s OK with that. What he and his allies weren’t OK with is losing money. The only thing that moves white supremacy is power and money. If he didn’t change the flag, he stood to lose both.”

On Saturday morning, as lawmakers arrived to the Capitol to vote on the procedural motion that paved the way for the Sunday flag vote, Reeves released a statement that said he would sign any bill lawmakers sent him.

“We should not be under any illusion that a vote in the Capitol is the end of what must be done — the job before us is to bring the state together and I intend to work night and day to do it,” Reeves posted on Saturday morning. “… No matter where you are…I love you, Mississippi.”

But the governor’s promise to sign the bill was met with scorn from legislative leaders, as their proposal to remove the flag passed both the House and Senate by more than the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto, had the governor opted to try to block the bill from becoming law.

Upon the release of that Saturday statement and as lawmakers began to vote, pro-flag Mississippians blasted Reeves on social media, saying they regretted voting for him in 2019 and swearing to ensure he would not be re-elected in 2023.

Several popular Facebook groups — like the Mississippians to Keep the Flag of 1894 — have effectively turned into an anti-Tate Reeves pages, posting memes and statements like: “We need to nail Governor Tate Reeves to the wall, we are being betrayed, he is telling us our vote does not count. WHO ELECTED TATE REEVES and WHY DID WE ELECT HIM?… GIVE HIM HELL BEFORE BREAKFAST, BEFORE LUNCH and BEFORE SUPPER.”

“I am disappointed in Gov. Reeves,” said George Bond, the chairman of the Coalition to Save the State Flag. “The people of the state of Mississippi voted for him due to the fact he campaigned on his beliefs that any change to the flag would be sent to the people. He may try to hide behind the fact that technically we do get to decide on the flag design in November, but that design is forced upon us by the Legislature.”

Bond continued: “It’s basically like saying, ‘You can have whatever you want, as long as it’s this.’  That is a shame.”

As House and Senate leaders worked during recent days to garner the legislative votes to change the flag, Reeves seemed to flounder on how to deal with the volatile issue. He called a meeting with five of the other seven statewide elected officials to gauge their feelings on the issue. Hosemann and Attorney General Lynn Fitch were not at the meeting.

By the time of the meeting, all of the statewide officials except Reeves and Secretary of State Michael Watson had endorsed removing the old flag, though most did not say whether it should be done by a vote of the people or by the Legislature.

The bill Reeves signed on Tuesday now becomes law. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History has 15 days to officially retire the state flag.

A nine-person commission will be appointed to develop a single new design by September, and Mississippi voters will approve or reject that design on the November 2020 ballot. In the meantime, Mississippi will have no official state flag.

The new design “will not include the Confederate battle flag but shall include the words ‘In God We Trust’,” the law reads. Should voters reject that design in November, the commission would present a new option during the 2021 legislative session.