Tate Reeves prepares to debate against Bill Waller Jr. during the GOP gubernatorial debate at WJTV studios Wednesday, August 21, 2019. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Rep. Robert Johnson, the minority leader in the Mississippi House of Representatives whose measured and respectful demeanor has brought recent policy success to Democrats in a ruby red state, is disgusted.

He’s disgusted that months after lawmakers voted to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag after 126 years, Mississippi is once again celebrating Confederate Memorial Day.

He’s disgusted that Mississippi is — once again — garnering a negative image on front pages and in news broadcasts across the nation because some prominent leaders continue to embrace the ugliest parts of the state’s history.

He’s disgusted by Tate Reeves, the governor who codified the official state holiday after claiming during the 2020 flag debate that he wants to unite Mississippians.

Rep. Robert Johnson III speaks to media on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

“I don’t understand how a man with a reputation of being reasonably intelligent who says he wants to move Mississippi forward keeps wrapping his arms around these things that make us all look so bad,” Johnson told Mississippi Today on Monday. “We have so much to be proud of and to love. The relationships we’ve built have done wonders for us, especially this past year. Removing the flag was a seminal moment for this state, and it signaled to the world who we really can be.

“Is this really what Tate believes is important?” Johnson continued. “It does nothing to build relationships or foster unity. It unravels it in many ways.”

The states of Mississippi and Alabama are officially observing Confederate Memorial Day on Monday, perpetuating a decades-long practice even as government-sanctioned adulation of The Lost Cause has been reversed in recent months. The day marks an official state holiday, meaning most state employees have the day off.

The holiday is the first since most Mississippi statewide elected officials supported the June 2020 legislative effort to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag — a move most of them rightfully touted as morally responsible in the state home to the highest percentage of Black residents.

Depending on the venue, Reeves has been quick to take credit for the flag change even though he did not publicly support the legislative effort until the morning lawmakers banked the necessary votes. He said at the time he would work to bring Mississippians together: “… the job before us is to bring the state together, and I intend to work night and day to do it.”

But close observers of the governor knew, even at the time of the flag change, that he was not in the morally responsible camp.

“I know there are people of goodwill who are not happy to see this flag change,” he said shortly before signing the flag bill into law in early July 2020. “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.”

Earlier that day, Reeves posted to social media: “No matter where you are … I love you, Mississippi.”

Confederate Memorial Day is the hallmark of Confederate Heritage Month, which Reeves tried to quietly declare this year after the state’s governors did the same in each year dating back to Kirk Fordice in 1993. Mississippi is the only state in the nation that officially designates an entire month for the confederacy.

The initial proclamation in 1993 — the language of which was mirrored nearly word-for-word in this year’s document signed by Reeves — was signed by former Gov. Fordice at the request of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the Military Order of the Stars and Bars and the Order of the Confederate Rose, Mississippi Today reporting and an analysis of public records shows.

These groups have worked for decades to whitewash the horrors of the time and the reality that the Civil War was fought by the Southern states to uphold slavery. The second line of Mississippi 1861 secession papers says it all: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.”

The continued romanticizing of that era through state-sanctioned celebrations like Confederate Memorial Day exposes the deep gulf between those who are working to perpetuate Lost Cause narratives and those who are fighting for a better future for Mississippi.

“I believe that any mention or observance of Confederate Memorial Day flies in the face of the unity that lawmakers — Black and white — intended to create when we took the historic step of ridding Mississippi of the old Confederate battle flag that had so long represented insults, shame and division among races in our state,” said Sen. Derrick Simmons, the Democratic leader in the Senate. “I would like to see all references to that evil past dropped as would many other lawmakers, both silent and vocal. Let’s pray that in the future we all can learn better and do better and drop all references to the confederacy and the evil that it represents.”

Johnson, a critical ally of Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn’s as they whipped votes to change the flag in 2020, said that Confederate Memorial Day serves as “a stumbling block” for those who are truly fighting for that continued progress.

“There are so many things that we could unify around right now — anything that doesn’t elicit feelings of hate or intimidation for at least half the state’s population,” Johnson said. “We felt so much hope for progress after the flag changed. This man (Reeves) is undoing that, and he can’t even see it.

“Worse than that, it signals to all of those people across the country and world who want to believe that Mississippi is this backwards, racist place that they’re right,” Johnson continued. “All he’s doing is giving that to them.”

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.