Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, feeling confident that he would soon have enough votes in his chamber to change the state flag, was at his home the morning of Monday, June 22, 2020, when he got a call from Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann.
Hosemann, in his first year presiding over the Senate, informed Gunn that he would be hosting a press conference later that day with several other statewide elected officials outside the Senate chamber to publicly call for lawmakers to place the state flag decision on a statewide ballot. The people, not lawmakers, should decide the fate of the state flag, Hosemann argued.
Gunn, closer than ever to having enough House votes to change the flag, implored Hosemann to rethink the idea and shared his fear that a months-long campaign would divide rather than unite Mississippians and draw negative national attention to the state.
“I said, ‘Delbert, I don’t think that’s the right move,’” Gunn recalled telling Hosemann. “I said, ‘Let’s talk about that. Don’t take any action on that. I’m coming to the Capitol.’”
To that day — six days before the final vote — Gunn had been focused on the difficult battle of securing House votes to change the flag in the Legislature.
Hosemann, meanwhile, had been privately sharing with his Senate colleagues that he didn’t believe lawmakers should move to change the flag themselves. Mississippi Today had reported Hosemann’s apprehension to the legislative change and even his effort to relegate a Senate flag bill to a committee where it was assured death.
Several Senate leaders didn’t necessarily oppose the flag change, but they were content to wait and see if enough House Republicans would support a legislative change. The shared thinking of most every Republican senator at the time was that the House would never get the necessary votes to change the flag, so they didn’t worry much about it.
While Gunn had been counting House votes for a couple weeks, there had been no broad effort from Hosemann or any other Senate Republican leader to whip votes to change the flag.
From outside the Capitol, it appeared as though there may have been movement on the legislative effort. But inside the building, there was still a gulf between the House and Senate leaders on how, if even at all, to move forward. The June 21 phone call illustrated that.
When they hung up, Gunn drove to the Capitol and met with Hosemann, inquiring about how far along Hosemann was in the planning of the press conference. This served as their first substantive conversation about changing the flag.
“He said he hadn’t scheduled the press conference yet, and I said, ‘Let’s don’t. Let’s think about this and determine how best we can proceed,’” Gunn recalled. “You know the way this building works: A lot of times you have a shared outcome, but you have differing ideas about how to get there. Delbert and I have always had a good working relationship — I have a great deal of respect for him — and he agreed to hear me out and continue talks.”
Gunn, wanting to convince Hosemann that the Legislature, not voters, should change the flag, made a few calls and quickly organized a summit of statewide officials and conservative religious leaders.
The speaker wanted the meeting to remain private, so he called his friend Blake Thompson, president at Mississippi College, and asked if they could meet at the Mississippi College School of Law building a few blocks from the Capitol.
The next morning, June 23, Gunn hosted Hosemann, Attorney General Lynn Fitch and Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney at the law school. They were met there by Shawn Parker of the Mississippi Baptist Convention and Ligon Duncan of Reformed Theological Seminary — both of whom were invited by Gunn after the speaker had spoken to them about the flag just a few hours before.
Gunn also asked Ron Matis, a lobbyist for the United Pentecostal Church of Mississippi, to join. Hosemann, a devout Catholic, invited his priest.
Gunn began the meeting by discussing where House members were and reiterating that he believed the best path forward was a vote of the Legislature. Hosemann went next and said that he believed voters, not lawmakers, should decide the fate of the flag. The religious leaders spoke individually about their thoughts and the politics of the matter for their congregations.
“I indicated that the Mississippi Baptist Convention was going to release a statement in support of changing the flag later that day,” Parker, who leads the largest Christian denomination in the state, told Mississippi Today. “Some of the other religious leaders said their intent was to follow suit. Then we prayed, asked for the Lord’s guidance as we navigated the next few days.”
Later that day, leaders of the Mississippi Baptist Convention released statements calling on lawmakers to change the state flag. The Baptist statements, regarded by some as one of the most significant moments of the entire effort, were careful to say lawmakers, not voters, should make the change.
Duncan, a renowned Presbyterian leader, released a statement the following morning calling on lawmakers, not voters, to make the change. Jackson Catholic Diocese Bishop Joseph Kopacz released a statement two days later calling on lawmakers, not voters, to make the change. The Mississippi United Pentecostal Church issued a statement three days later asking lawmakers to place the issue before voters.
“I was very proud of those religious leaders for doing what they did publicly,” Gunn said. “They didn’t have to do that. They weren’t trying to be political. They were doing what they believed was in accordance with scripture. That was a big deal for so many people.”
But leaving that meeting with the religious leaders, Hosemann continued to insist he believed lawmakers should put the issue on a statewide ballot rather than changing the flag themselves. Plus, the speaker knew he didn’t quite have the necessary votes in the House to change the flag even if Hosemann were to come on board.
So Gunn kept working the phones.
When Gunn returned to the Capitol following the meeting with religious leaders on June 23, he called University of Southern Mississippi President Rodney Bennett, one of eight presidents of public universities in the state.
All eight public universities had long stopped flying the state flag for moral reasons — a point of tension in the House and Senate in recent legislative sessions.
“I knew those presidents could get to members (in the Legislature) better than anyone,” Gunn said. “If anyone could do it, it was them.”
Bennett, at Gunn’s request, got all eight presidents to the speaker’s office the very next morning on June 24 — an incredible feat considering it can be difficult to get all eight presidents in the same room even for their scheduled college board meetings.
“I told them, ‘Look, this thing is moving. I need your help. I need for y’all to contact your alums in the House and the Senate,’ and I urged them to support this,” Gunn said. “They said they were on it. They immediately started making phone calls. They got prominent alums to call lawmakers. It was incredible.”
After their meeting with Gunn on June 24, the college presidents walked across the Capitol to meet with Hosemann.
That afternoon around 4 p.m., Gunn received another call from Hosemann.
“He said, ‘I’ve changed my mind. I think the Legislature needs to do it,’” Gunn recalled. “I thought to myself, ‘Hallelujah, we are going to change this flag.’ Thinking back to that time, I really admire (Hosemann’s) desire to listen and come to the table. Not a lot of leaders are willing to do that, and the change couldn’t have happened without his support.”
A few minutes after Hosemann called Gunn, the lieutenant governor’s office released a statement.
“… the Legislature in 1894 selected the current flag and the Legislature should address it today. Failing to do so only harms us and postpones the inevitable,” Hosemann said in the June 24 statement.
When the eight university presidents sat in Gunn’s office on June 24, an idea was floated.
As pressure outside the building to change the flag was reaching a fever pitch, several Mississippi college athletes and coaches had publicly chimed in about the flag change. Most notably, Kylin Hill, Mississippi State’s star running back, threatened to not suit up for the Bulldogs that fall if the flag wasn’t changed.
“Sports had already played a pretty big role in moving some lawmakers (to change the flag),” Gunn said. “It’s Mississippi. You know how sports are here. What more powerful way to convince people about this than sports?”
The presidents all agreed.
“From a press standpoint, the best thing we could come up with was to get the coaches involved,” said Rep. Trey Lamar, one of the speaker’s top lieutenants who was in the meeting with the university presidents. “So we told (the presidents) that and they all agreed, and they left that meeting with the understanding that we are leaving here, and we are calling our coaches and we are going to put it together. Within hours, you know, word had gotten back to us what was going to happen the next day. They were all coming back.”
On June 25, dozens of coaches from the state’s eight public universities arrived at the Capitol for a press conference to call for changing the state flag. Big names like Ole Miss football coach Lane Kiffin, Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach were joined by coaches of the less popular sports.
It’s difficult to portray how meaningful that moment was to the entire change effort. Before that, change seemed far-fetched inside the building, even as Gunn and others were whipping votes. But for such prominent figures to come together on short notice and demand the change in the very building where lawmakers worked was powerful.
Veteran Mississippi sportswriter Rick Cleveland, a columnist for Mississippi Today, put it this way: “All my professional life, I have wondered what it would take for all the universities in Mississippi to agree on any matter under the sun. Just once. And now I know: It’s the state flag of Mississippi — specifically, the need to get rid of the current flag.”
Nikki McCray-Penson, head women’s basketball coach at Mississippi State University, and Kermit Davis, head men’s basketball coach at Ole Miss, spoke at the press conference. Afterwards, the coaches met with individual lawmakers and leaders in the Capitol.
The only elected official invited to speak at the press conference was Philip Gunn.
“This entire state is screaming for change. This is an issue that needs to be resolved, and resolved quickly,” Gunn said. “The longer it goes, the more it festers and the harder it’s going to be later on. The image of our state is at stake here, ladies and gentlemen. The nation is watching.”
While Gunn had been organizing the meetings of the religious leaders, university presidents and coaches in hopes of changing Hosemann’s mind about unilateral legislative action, he also knew that those groups would have a tremendous effect on the individual lawmakers still on the fence about voting to change the flag.
With the stakes higher than ever, Gunn still didn’t have quite enough House votes to suspend the rules and pass the bill. There was also a final bill to write, the details of which had to be just right to keep the fragile coalition of supporters on board.
The final hours of that week would become some of the most intense of Gunn’s political career.
Part five of the Mississippi Today’s series will publish on July 2.
-- Article credit to Adam Ganucheau of Mississippi Today --