Letter from the Editor: Mississippi’s historic flag change

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Lawmakers made history on Sunday by voting to remove the Mississippi state flag, which was the last in the nation featuring the Confederate battle emblem. Governor Tate Reeves signed the bill into law last night. Adopted 126 years ago, that flag has long been a point of political contention and debate. Many elected officials have spent their whole political lives trying to pull down that flag, but hundreds of bills and initiatives have failed over the course of several decades. The question I’ve been asked most the past couple days: How did this change happen now, in 2020, during an unprecedented legislative session in the midst of a worldwide health pandemic?

Many who deserve credit may never get it because of the work they did behind the scenes. This outcome didn’t come as a result of one moment, one person, or one group. It was this confluence of years of grassroots organizing, civic pressure, and political courage. I’ve never seen Mississippians rally around something so passionately and effectively when it mattered most. This was a wholly democratic process; the Legislature represented the will of the people. It was so beautifully Mississippi, and I’ll never forget it.

I was recently asked about how we saw our role as journalists in this debate. We cover politics, and we avoid partisanship. But unlike any issue we’ve covered, to use a cliché — this wasn’t about right versus left, it was about right versus wrong. I dare to say that this historic movement would have quickly fallen off the legislative agenda, once again, if it were not for the team at Mississippi Today.

We started by listening. One of the focal points of the historic Black Lives Matter protest on June 6 in downtown Jackson was changing the flag. After covering the protest, our team was inspired: With three weeks left in the 2020 legislative session, just what would it take to have the flag removed? Framed with the voices of activists from the protest, we outlined exactly how the Legislature could move forward on a flag change. The very next day, I received a call from a lawmaker who said that he’d read the article and was among a group of House members gathering to discuss changing the flag.

Then we took a chance. Using his tip, we published a story about this backroom, bipartisan conversation at the Capitol to change the flag. While we received sharp criticism from politicos that our story came too soon — before legislators had enough time to whip votes in veiled exchange —  we focused on fulfilling our mission of informing and engaging our readers. As we suspected would be the case, our reporting ignited public conversation on the issue. Though the pressure dialed up that week, we were still assured by legislative leaders that there was very little chance of action on the flag in 2020. Hearing that really bothered me, so our politics team met and strategized.

Next we decided to apply some public pressure. We designed a plain and simple tally of where each lawmaker stood on the legislative action regarding the flag, and our political reporters began polling all 174 members. That list was cited in newspapers around the world as attention on the debate grew. Soon after publishing the tally, we followed with a list of municipalities, universities, private businesses and associations that had stopped flying the flag or had publicly called for its removal. That list never stopped growing.

We broke the story on the NCAA ceasing postseason play in Mississippi, and our reporting on SEC commissioner Greg Sankey’s denouncement of the flag went viral. Our columnist Rick Cleveland deeply and poignantly covered the influence the sports world had on lawmakers. We developed a survey to gauge the perspectives of everyday Mississippians, and more than 5,000 readers shared their personal position on the flag with us, which further informed our reporting. All the while, our editor at large Marshall Ramsey drew several powerful cartoons about the debate, broadening the reach of our reporting.

Today, we wake up to a better Mississippi because our journalists helped hold legislative leaders accountable and ensure processes were transparent and public-facing. Is this something you can get behind?

I am asking you to dig deep and support a better trajectory for our state: One based on freedom of information, and communities engaged in civic conversation. We provide that, like no other news organization has done before, and our nonprofit newsroom needs your support.