As activists demanded state flag change in 2020, Philip Gunn began counting GOP votes
A police officer murdered George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis. A team of police officers killed Breonna Taylor in her apartment in Kentucky. White men killed Ahmaud Arbery while he was jogging in Georgia. Millions of Americans had taken to the streets to protest police brutality in a national reckoning on racism.
Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, who had been the most prominent Republican to publicly call for removing the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag but struggled to get buy-in from his GOP legislative colleagues, was watching intently.
“George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, all the other incidents happened, and we weren’t even supposed to be in session to begin with,” Gunn said. “But there we were, and there the nation was. There clearly was a window of opportunity to discuss the flag again.”
On June 6, 2020, several young Black organizers gathered at least 3,000 Mississippians in downtown Jackson for a Black Lives Matter rally. Historians suggested that the rally was the largest civil rights demonstration in Mississippi since the 1960s. One of the organizers’ main demands to government leaders: Change the state flag.
“Mississippi is a state that I love,” Jarrius Adams, one of the organizers of the BLM rally, told Mississippi Today at the time. “But with the current state flag, Mississippi struggles to love me back … Elected officials who choose to stay silent on this issue are cowards. (They) have a responsibility to ensure anything that represents our state represents us equitably.”
In the crowd that day was state Rep. Chris Bell, a Democrat who represents the city of Jackson. Moved by the rally and the moment, Bell got to work when he returned to the Capitol two days later.
One of dozens of Black lawmakers who had unsuccessfully filed bills to change the state flag in previous sessions, Bell met with eight other House members — including four newly-elected white Republicans — in a closed-door meeting on June 8. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss how, if at all, they could carry out the demand of those activists.
The 10 attendees of that meeting were Democratic Reps. Chris Bell, Jarvis Dortch, Robert Johnson, Tracey Rosebud, Jeffery Harness and Shanda Yates; and Republican Reps. Missy McGee, Kent McCarty, Jansen Owen and Sam Creekmore. The meeting served as one of the first earnest bipartisan efforts to change the flag since 2001.
“We all knew that in order for us to have any shot at changing the flag, it had to have the approval of the speaker,” Bell said. “We knew how critical Speaker Gunn was to this movement.”
So three representatives of the group — Bell, Johnson and Yates — scheduled a meeting with Gunn in his office.
“(Yates) looked at me and said, ‘We want to change the flag,’” Gunn recalled. “I chuckled a little bit and said, ‘Well I do, too. It’s no secret where I stand.’ Then she said, ‘I think we need to bring it to a vote.’”
“Well, how many votes do you have?” Gunn asked. Yates said that she thought she had four Republican votes along with the House’s 39 Black Democrats and five white Democrats.
The fact that the lawmakers even had the ability to meet that day was unusual. In any other year, the Legislature would’ve adjourned its session in April. But because COVID-19 was ripping through the state, lawmakers delayed the session to resume during the early summer. They’d returned to Jackson on June 8, and they had a little less than a month to pass the state’s budget and allocate more than $1 billion in federal coronavirus relief.
Because of the delayed session, the Legislature’s deadlines to introduce general bills had all passed. That meant by a two-thirds vote of both the House and the Senate would have to agree to suspend the legislative rules to even consider a flag bill.
In other words, a flag bill that would normally require just 62 votes to pass the House actually required 81 votes to be considered during the unusual June reconvening.
The group of House Democrats sitting in Gunn’s office on June 8 had counted just 48 votes to change the flag — 33 votes shy of the necessary margin.
“They were well short of the votes not only to suspend the rules, but even just to change the flag (with the simple majority),” Gunn said. “I told them they were welcome to keep counting votes, and I pledged that I would ask around and gauge the temperature among the Republicans.
“To be honest, I didn’t believe on that day that they — we, anyone — could get anywhere close to the votes we needed,” Gunn said.
The next day, on June 9, Mississippi Today first reported details of that meeting with Gunn. The headline read: “Bipartisan group of lawmakers, with Speaker Gunn’s blessing, pushes to change Mississippi state flag.” Mississippi Today’s political team carefully vetted the story before publication and cited information from multiple unnamed sources with direct knowledge of the meeting.
Thousands of Mississipians, spurred by the explosive news, flooded the phones and email inboxes of legislators. The article published just as the House was going into the morning session on June 9. When Gunn stepped off the floor 90 minutes later, he had received 582 emails from Mississippians about the flag.
Gunn, meanwhile, privately fumed about the publication of the article. He felt it inaccurately portrayed his position, and he felt betrayed by the attendees of that meeting who talked to a reporter. Allies of Gunn’s publicly suggested that the article likely killed any chances of legislative action on the flag.