This is part one in a five-part series about Philip Gunn’s influence in changing the Mississippi state flag. Read more about the series here.
The day Speaker of the House Philip Gunn became the first prominent Republican elected official to publicly call for changing the state flag, the backlash he received was so distressing that he asked the Clinton Police Department to watch his house closely overnight.
“I called and said, ‘Hey, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Would you just keep an eye on my neighborhood?’ I have no idea if they did, but I was concerned, to say the least,” Gunn said, pausing to collect his thoughts. “We had gotten some — just some very aggressive, hateful responses in emails and text messages that day.”
It was June 22, 2015, and Gunn had attended a fundraiser earlier in the day for state Rep. Joey Hood in Ackerman. After the event, a reporter at a northeast Mississippi television station grabbed Gunn for a quick interview.
Less than a week before in South Carolina, a young white man walked into a Black church in Charleston and brutally murdered nine worshippers. Because the gunman had publicly documented his obsession with the Confederate battle emblem, the murders inspired debate across the country about the government-sanctioned use of the Confederate symbol.
The TV reporter asked Gunn about the Mississippi state flag, which was the last in the nation containing the Confederate battle emblem. While the camera rolled, Gunn advocated for a new flag.
As soon as Gunn left the fundraiser, he called Nathan Wells, his then-chief of staff and longtime top political adviser. The two had been privately talking for years about their shared disdain of the state flag and how they could work to change it.
“He said, ‘Nathan, uh, I think we need to release a statement,’” Wells recounted to Mississippi Today in an interview earlier this year. “I didn’t know he was going to take this step that rocked the Mississippi political scene for a minute, but knowing how he felt about it, it didn’t surprise me.”
Later that day, Gunn’s office released an official statement that did not mince words. It landed him in headlines and TV news broadcasts across the state and the nation.
“We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us,” Gunn said in the June 22, 2015, statement. “As a Christian, I believe our state’s flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed. We need to begin having conversations about changing Mississippi’s flag.”
A former deacon of his Baptist church in Clinton and trustee of one of the nation’s top Southern Baptist seminaries, Gunn frequently cites his faith as he takes public positions on political and social issues.
In interviews with Mississippi Today, Gunn opened up about how difficult it became for him to square his perception of the state-sanctioned Confederate battle emblem with his view of Christianity.
“My conviction was borne out of my religion, out of my understanding of scripture,” Gunn said. “I believe the number one charge of anyone who professes to be a Christian is to love God first and love your neighbor second. We are also charged to be witnesses for the gospel to share our faith and to encourage others to follow God. And so as I began to think about that and the flag, it just seemed to me that the continued use of the Confederate emblem was an obstacle we had to overcome.”
Gunn continued: “It would be very difficult for me to go into an African American neighborhood, say, with a Confederate battle emblem on my T-shirt and say, ‘Let me tell you about how I love you and Jesus loves you.’ To me, that would immediately raise suspicion because of how that image has been used to represent the hatred that some had in their hearts.”
While describing his feelings about the Confederate battle emblem, Gunn specifically mentioned the Charleston church shooting and the 2016 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, where white nationalists from around the country came together around the symbol.
Even before that, Gunn said, he felt the image was offensive, leading him to vote in the 2001 referendum to change the state flag. Gunn was among just 36% of Mississippi voters who voted to change the flag that year.
“That image had become co-opted to represent things that I don’t think Mississippians stand for, for something I don’t think represents my Christian faith,” he said. “You know, there are other scriptures in the Bible, like when Paul says, ‘If I eat meat and it offends my brother, then I don’t eat meat.’ I don’t, for the sake of the gospel, do certain things that drive away people or prevent me having the opportunity to share the gospel or lead people effectively. So all that was, first and foremost, the nature of my conviction about changing the flag.”
Gunn’s statement in June 2015 sent a shockwave through the state’s political apparatus. While U.S. Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker quickly echoed Gunn’s sentiments about the flag, no other prominent Republicans in Mississippi were moved enough by his words to join him on the limb.
Statewide officials and top legislators privately suggested the speaker must have had intentions of leaving politics or had another job lined up. There were serious talks of a mutiny within the House GOP caucus, and several flag-supporting House Republicans from rural districts floated the notion of running against Gunn for speaker to anyone who would listen. Signs popped up in white yards of voters across the state: “Keep the flag, change the Speaker.”
“I respected him for it,” said Rep. Robert Johnson, the Democrat from Natchez who serves as the House Democratic caucus leader. “No matter the impetus, it took courage to do it in light of the people and party he represented. I witnessed some of the vitriol and backlash he got. I knew what the sentiment was in some circles, but I just didn’t know people would turn on him the way they did. Here’s a man who you couldn’t question his conservatism. And just because he took that stance on the flag, he was thrown to the wolves.”
Gunn didn’t even receive meaningful political support from his own caucus. Just six Republican lawmakers in the House reached out to him and privately offered their support that week, Gunn said. Only two of them backed his statement publicly.
“I got a call from a top Republican political adviser — a good friend of mine — who said ‘Philip Gunn is done,’” Wells said. “Was there a political risk? Sure. We talked about that at the time. Ultimately we said that if we lead a caucus that will vote you out as speaker because you want to change the flag from this hateful image, do you really want to be speaker of that caucus anyway? It was a pretty easy question to answer.”
Gunn, too, downplayed any perception of political fallout.
“I try not to operate worrying about the next election or worry about things like that,” Gunn said. “I would like to think that I operate more based upon conviction, what I think is right and not based on any possible consequences. I think most political experts would tell you to make a statement like that was probably not very politically smart.”
It’s difficult to overstate how alone Gunn remained on the issue. His statement spurred no movement within the Mississippi Republican Party, which had a complete grasp of the state’s power structure that had the capability to change the flag.
Neither of the two most powerful officials needed to make the change had the personal desire to take on the issue. Then-Gov. Phil Bryant, a dues-paying member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, displayed a state flag license plate on the front of his state-issued SUV. Then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, whose principal focus at the time was building statewide support for his planned 2019 run for governor, made no bones about his support of the flag, wearing the image on a ballcap to football games and on hunting excursions.
Republicans, who enjoy a legislative supermajority, long feared going against their constituencies on the flag. Gunn’s statement in 2015 came a couple months before the Republican primary in a statewide and legislative election cycle — timing that spooked even the members of his party who may have privately agreed with his position on the flag.
As late as 2019, Republicans who even hinted at a new flag were targeted the next election cycle. Any public statements from most Republican lawmakers not named Philip Gunn included something about the pro-flag vote in the 2001 referendum or how “voters, not lawmakers, should make this decision.”
In the legislative sessions following his 2015 statement, Gunn knew he didn’t have anywhere close to the votes necessary in his House to make the change. And even if he did expend the capital to whip the House votes for such a politically contentious issue, he still had to contend with a Reeves-led Senate and a governor who would likely veto.
He focused, instead, on building relationships with a broad coalition of House members.
“We talked about the flag every session,” Johnson said. “He’d always say, ‘You know where I’m at on this, you know I want to change the flag, but we just don’t have the support in the Republican caucus. None of my people want it out of committee.’ He thought it would further divide or create tension in his caucus. He saw it as a futile effort.
“He was trying to maintain unity within his caucus, and I didn’t always agree with that,” Johnson continued. “I thought the way to get it passed was to keep hammering it, at least force the debate. He thought it would end up creating more anger and discord. For better or worse, he stuck to that.”
In the years after the statement, Gunn felt he had no choice but to wait. Meanwhile, he continued to have conversations with both Democrats and Republicans about the issue. When the Southern Legislative Conference met on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2017, Gunn hosted several lawmakers of both major parties in a closed-door session with the William Winter Institute to discuss the state flag, among other things. Catching wind of that session, about 20 protesters waving old state flags gathered outside the conference center on its opening night.
The speaker would sometimes become visibly frustrated when pressed on why he hadn’t pushed legislation to change the flag following his 2015 statement.
“I think ultimately, those of us who wanted to change the flag knew that something outside our control had to happen for the energy to be created to have a real conversation,” Gunn said. “We of course weren’t rooting for another Charleston or anything like that, but something bigger than a statement I put out needed to happen (for real talks of a change among Republicans to occur).”
To Gunn’s dismay, it would take five years from the time he first called for the change for that “something bigger than a statement” to happen. But when it did, he was ready to move and didn’t hesitate.
Part two of the Mississippi Today’s series will publish on June 29, part three will publish June 30, part four on July 1, and part five on July 2.