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Mississippi may have the votes to change its state flag, says a senior lawmaker

The Mississippi state flag has in the canton portion of the banner the design of the Civil War-era Confederate battle flag.
The Mississippi state flag has in the canton portion of the banner the design of the Civil War-era Confederate battle flag.

Mississippi is the last state in the country whose flag features the Confederate emblem. And there may be enough lawmakers who want to remove the battle emblem in the state legislature to make the change, a senior state lawmaker told CNN on Friday.

“So far, I can tell you that we have the votes needed in the House,” said State Rep. Robert Johnson III, the Democratic leader of the state’s House of Representatives who has been in the legislature for 27 years.

Mississippi’s flag features red, white and blue stripes with the Confederate battle emblem in the corner. It was first adopted in 1894.

In 2001, Mississippi gave voters the chance to change the flag through a public referendum; 64 percent voted no.

“These kinds of issues, sadly, always seem to break down on racial lines,” Johnson said.

In light of recent protests following the killing of George Floyd, though, that sentiment could change.

“Young people who were not voting at the time … want to see this change. And they are White, Black, Republican, and Democrat. They just want to see it change,” Johnson said.

Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican who has opposed changing the flag through the legislature, said Thursday in a Facebook post, “I don’t think that if you want to keep the flag you’re automatically a traitor or racist. I also understand that a flag isn’t about the past; it is a banner for the present.”

He added, “Outside of all the corporate posturing and preening, there is honest pain and discomfort felt when some Mississippians look at the symbol on our flag.”

Reeves believes the question about changing the flag should be put to the people to decide. He has acknowledged that since the 2001 vote “there’s a good chance that Missippians’ views might have changed.”

On Thursday, country music superstar Faith Hill called for the removal of the battle flag emblem in a Twitter thread addressed to the legislature. Hill, who grew up in Mississippi, wrote that the current flag is “a direct symbol of terror” for Black residents.

Although the legislature has come a long way by securing the necessary House votes, Johnson did say he was concerned about the bill’s fate in the Senate. However, he said, the House can “put some pressure on the Senate to go on and take a bill up.” This, combined with the growing national conversation around race, makes the vote “just a matter of time.”

When asked why he personally wanted to see the flag changed, Johnson told CNN, “I was born in 1958. I grew up in the Civil Rights movement. I actually saw Klansmen ride down the middle of main street with Confederate flags and with shouts and rants of terror … They were bold and out there. There were Black people that were just murdered. Some disappeared for no other reason than they were Black. People boasted about it.”

“I grew up in an era where I watched that happen,” he continued. “So, that flag means nothing but hate and terror to me.”

Johnson believes the Confederate emblem has been a deterrent for economic and educational growth in the state and has driven young people away.

“If we could remove that flag, it opens up a brand-new door for the state of Mississippi,” he concluded.

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