‘It’s an artifact’: Mississippi officially retires its state flag to a museum

Print Share on LinkedIn More

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Mississippi Highway Patrol officers furl the state flag outside of the Capitol in Jackson on Wednesday, July 1, 2020.

Mississippi’s former state flag with the divisive Confederate battle emblem in its canton was officially retired to a museum on Wednesday after flying over the state for 126 years.

Flags were raised a final time over the state Capitol domes on Wednesday afternoon. They were then lowered as a crowd of about 100 people outside the Capitol applauded.

The retirement ceremony on Wednesday came after lawmakers passed a bill on Sunday that removed the flag, which was the last in the nation containing the Confederate emblem.

Retired Army Col. Robert Barnes of Byram was among the crowd, taking pictures and video for posterity. He mused with another spectator about how in 1968, as a young African American ROTC cadet, his first unit crest included the flag, with its Confederate emblem.

“It was hard to put it on,” said Barnes, 69, who spent 31 years in the military.

Did Barnes think the flag — the source of bitter debate for decades — would ever come down?

He paused, reflected, then said: “I thought it was possible. But I knew it would be step by step, a long process.”

The flags were delivered by Mississippi National Guard and Highway Patrol color guards to House Speaker Philip Gunn, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Archives and History Director Katie Blount. They then delivered the flags to former Supreme Court Justice Reuben Anderson, president of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History board, at the Museum of Mississippi History and Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

[Read all of our state flag coverage here.]

Museum officials plan to create an exhibit about the flag for the history museum.

Anderson, the first African American member of the Mississippi Supreme Court in the modern era, proclaimed:  “This is the thrill of my lifetime to accept these flags.”

He accepted the banners at the doors of the Two Museums and said the flag is now “an artifact, and where it should be is in a history museum.”

About 100 people attended the second part of the ceremony outside of the museums. Among those in attendance was Robert Clark, who is 1968 became the first African American elected to the Mississippi Legislature since Reconstruction and served two terms as speaker pro-tem of the House.

Gunn, who advocated for the replacement of the flag in 2015 when most Republican politicians were quiet on the issue, said during the 126 years the flag flew over the state, it “saw good moments as well as some of its darkest. This retirement is a somber occasion, but it also marks a beginning, a time for renewal.”

Anderson praised Gunn and Hosemann as “two great men. What they went through to get this done is remarkable.”

Hosemann told the crowd outside the museums what was occurring was historic, but he also said this was a time to look to the future and the new flag that Mississippians will vote on in November.

“It will be the flag of our future, for all of our citizens,” Hosemann said.

“This is not an end, but a beginning,” Gunn said.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

House Speaker Philip Gunn, left, Mississippi Department of Archives and History Director Katie Blount, and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann prepare to deliver the retired state flags to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum Wednesday, July 1, 2020.

Besides praising Gunn and Hosemann, who as the Legislature’s presiding officers were able to garner the votes to remove the banner, Anderson also recognized the work of Legislative Black Caucus members who for years had advocated for the removal of the flag, former Gov. William Winter, the Mississippi Economic Council and university academic and sports officials.

Mississippi now has no official state flag, under a bill signed into law late Tuesday by Gov. Tate Reeves.

Amid a renewed national focus on racial injustice, Mississippi had faced growing pressure from business, religious, sports and civic leaders and institutions to change its flag, the last in the nation to sport the Confederate emblem. Lawmakers on Sunday, after decades of debate, passed a law removing the flag and calling for design of a new one.

The law calls for the creation of a nine-member commission, with Gunn, Hosemann and Reeves appointing three members each. The commission will develop a single new design by September, and Mississippi voters will approve or reject that design on the November 2020 ballot.

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.

Onetta Whitley of Jackson also watched the flag retirement ceremony at the Capitol. The 59-year-old said she had been doubtful she would see it removed in her lifetime. Whitley viewed the flag’s removal as forward movement for the state, maybe something that will prevent people like her son from moving away.

“That flag has been a distraction used to divide Mississippi for too long,” Whitley said. “… I just hope we can get a great flag design that everybody can rally around. Like the U.S. flag — we as Americans rally around it. Maybe now we can rally around a symbol as Mississippians. I do think this was the right thing to do.”