In May 2000, Ronnie Musgrove, coming off a razor-thin win the year before to capture the office of governor, had just enjoyed a successful legislative session where his teacher pay raise proposal, still the largest in state history, was approved.
He was riding high when in early May when the Mississippi Supreme Court delivered a bombshell – the state had no official flag. In an opinion written by then-Chief Justice Edwin Pittman, head of the state’s highest court, he ruled that the flag approved by the Legislature in 1894 was inadvertently repealed in 1906 and that in fact it was a “political decision “ for the current Legislature and governor to decide whether to maintain the old flag, which included the controversial Confederate battle emblem in its design.
Musgrove’s effort to replace the flag, though unsuccessful, has to be considered one of the key factors leading to his defeat three years later to Republican Haley Barbour. Barbour campaigned on the issue and helped to distribute signs throughout the state instructing Mississippians to “Keep the flag. Change the governor.”
Nineteen years later the state has furled the old flag and the citizens will vote in November on a new design that, by law, cannot contain the Confederate battle emblem.
“I thought it was a great day for Mississippi even though it’s been a long time coming…,” Musgrove said of action by the Legislature in late June to replace the flag. “Sure, back 19 years ago I played a political and personal price for being for a new flag. But the reality of the matter is we had the flag for 126 years, and we have been paying the price for that period of time.”
In 2001 the issue of the flag was thrust upon the state in large part by the Supreme Court. There had been efforts to change the flag by African American politicians and civil rights leaders, but the demand for change paled in comparison to what was apparent in recent months as protests and concerns over systematic racism grew. In addition, Musgrove said among those wanting to maintain the old flag there was “…Anger, vile people being really contentious about the issue compared to what we saw now.”
Another key difference, he said, is that in 2001 the leadership of the Legislature had no interest in voting to change the flag. The successful effort to change the flag would not have occurred this year if not for the behind-the-scenes work of Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, and House Speaker Philip Gunn. Musgrove, the state’s last Democratic governor, praised the leadership of Republicans Hosemann and Gunn, and also of Gov. Tate Reeves, who objected to the flag being changed unless by referendum before finally agreeing to sign the bill to remove the banner.
In 2000 after the Supreme Court ruling, Musgrove appointed a commission led by former Democratic Gov. William Winter and Tupelo businessman Jack Reed. Reed, the 1987 Republican nominee for governor, and Winter had been long-time friends and allies on such issue as improving education and racial relations.
Winter and the family of the late Jack Reed, whose department store was boycotted in the early 2000s because of his work on the flag commission, celebrated the action to replace the flag.
“We only wish that he were here to toast this momentous day with his great friend Gov. William Winter,” the Reed family said in a statement.
In true character, the 97-year-old Winter hailed the replacement of the flag, but looked to the future, saying, “The battle for a better Mississippi does not end with the removal of the flag.”
It was in reality the commission that recommended to the Legislature that the issue be placed on the ballot. But that recommendation was made with the understanding that it would be near impossible to get through the legislative process a bill to change the flag.
And it also turned out that replacing the flag via referendum was not doable. The old flag garnered 64 percent support in the 2001 referendum.
Musgrove said he remembers then-House Speaker Tim Ford telling him “we are absolutely not going to pass a new flag. And I told him I was absolutely not going to sign a bill with the old flag in it. So, we had a standoff and the only way we were able to work through that standoff was to put on the ballot a referendum by the people. It was not the path I wanted to take. It was not the best path to take. But at the time it was the only path that would move us down the path to a decision.”
Who would have known that there would be a clear path to change the flag 19 years later?