Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, wearing a new, voter selected Mississippi state flag face mask, speaks with reporters during the first day of the 2021 Mississippi Legislature, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

How unlikely was it that lawmakers would vote to change the state flag one year ago today?

“It would be the greatest legislative achievement in the history of the state,” a top adviser to Gov. Tate Reeves told this journalist just 12 days before the final vote. “There’s just no way it’ll happen.”

Many Mississippi elected officials tried unsuccessfully over the course of several decades to change the 126-year-old state flag, which would become the last in the nation containing the Confederate battle emblem.

Speaker of the House Philip Gunn did it.

For most Mississippi observers, the process to change the state flag lasted 22 days in June 2020. But for Gunn, the process lasted five years and one week — a harrowing period in the speaker’s career that has never been told in detail until now.

Gunn, in a series of one-on-one interviews this year, spoke candidly with Mississippi Today about what motivated him to make this the defining issue of his political career, and how he operated behind the scenes to make the change. Beginning today, the one-year anniversary of the historic legislative vote to furl the flag for good, Mississippi Today will publish a five-part series chronicling Gunn’s leadership that left a legacy on the state for generations to come.

It’s important to note a few things. The first is that Gunn himself will not take full credit for the change. While he acknowledged organizing and leading many of the key efforts, he’s quick to point out many people and factors came together at the right time — “divine providence,” he calls it. But those closest to the speaker and the process know that without Gunn’s leadership, the change would not have occurred. This series shares the perspectives of many of those people.

Second, Gunn wouldn’t have had the ground to stand on had it not been for the countless legislators and activists — namely African American leaders — who fought for decades to change the flag. Gunn even being in the position to take a stand came after generations of white elected officials lacked either the will or the savvy to change the flag. Nevertheless, Gunn went on a limb in 2015 and laid the groundwork for the historic vote. This reporting quotes several Black leaders who saw that from him over the course of several years.

Lastly, this series does not seek to diminish the work of the many people who fought for the change — both last year and in years past. The reporting does definitively show, however, how the flag would not have changed last year without Gunn’s leadership.

Gunn’s conviction to change the flag didn’t waver even as most of his white legislative colleagues feared the electoral repercussions. Exhibiting both patience and tenacity, he built relationships and coalitions over the past few years that would become critical to the final outcome. He used shrewdness the likes of which have rarely been matched in recent political history. 

He pleaded to the humanity of resistant white lawmakers, and he inspired their changes of heart to the point a couple of the most stubborn legislative holdouts brought their children to the Capitol to witness the historic final vote. He showed decisive leadership during a couple key inflection points last June, including single-handedly saving the effort from being killed less than a week before the final vote.

This reporting is based on four interviews conducted this year with Gunn, with many lawmakers and other stakeholders intimately involved with the process to change the flag, and from personal recollections of the past several months and years.

Part one of the series will publish on June 28, part two on June 29, part three on June 30, part four on July 1 and part five on July 2.

READ OUR FULL FLAG COVERAGE

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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.