Speaker of the House Philip Gunn was watching his son play baseball in Louisiana on June 20, 2020, when he got a call from Rep. Jason White, the second highest-ranking House member and a top lieutenant of Gunn’s.
“Mr. Speaker, you’re never going to believe who I just got off the phone with,” White told Gunn.
White paused a beat and said, “Karl Oliver,” referring to the House Republican who famously wrote in 2017 that public officials who wanted to remove Confederate monuments from public spaces “should be lynched.”
“He’s in,” White said.
That was the first moment Gunn genuinely believed he might be able to secure the House votes necessary to change the state flag, and it was a signal the progress he was making inside the building was beginning to match the fervor that was growing outside the building.
Earlier that week, things looked significantly less promising. Gunn committed to a bipartisan group of House members who wanted to change the flag that he would take the temperature of his Republican caucus. Long the most prominent Republican official to publicly call for changing the flag, Gunn didn’t think at the time he could whip anywhere close to the votes necessary to pass a flag bill.
But as rallies over racial inequality raged across the state and nation, Gunn believed there was a window of opportunity, so he dispatched his three most trusted allies — Rep. White, Rep. Trey Lamar, and his former chief of staff Nathan Wells — to begin having conversations with House Republicans.
“We expressed some concerns,” Lamar said of the assignment. “We had to counsel him and say, ‘Look, there is an unknown out there if we push this hard.’ Can we push this hard and get the votes? It was doubtful at that time. It wasn’t a very positive outlook at all. But outside just that, we didn’t know what Philip’s speakership looks like on the back end of any effort. You know, you force House members into taking this vote, you may have issues when the next speaker’s race comes up, or even before then. There may be some problems there, and it was one of those things that we wouldn’t be doing our job as advisors, you know, in his inner circle, if we didn’t make him aware of that.”
The first few conversations the group had with House Republicans did not go well. Gunn said he began feeling discouraged, and there was little movement inside the Capitol between June 11, the day Gunn committed to asking around his caucus, and June 17.
The lack of movement inside the building that week certainly did not match the mounting pressure outside the building. The public at large had joined the chorus of activists who had been leading the charge in demanding that leaders remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag. Dozens of local leaders of Mississippi cities and counties made public their opposition to the old flag. Business leaders had begun publicly calling for a change, and several lobbyists who represented those leaders were pulling lawmakers aside in the Capitol hallways making their cases.
Public polling was released that showed Mississippians were warming to the idea of a change. Even NASCAR had announced that week it was banning the Confederate battle emblem from its racetracks.
“I know it must have looked promising from the outside, but inside, we were still such a long ways off,” Gunn said. “It didn’t feel like a productive few days.”
A critical turning point was June 18, when the Southeastern Conference publicly announced it would not allow Mississippi schools to host SEC championship events until the flag was changed. Before the SEC statement, Gunn believed he had 12 Republican votes to change the flag — well shy of the roughly 40 he needed.
Lamar, a former Ole Miss football player, had long shared privately that he would be willing to vote to change the flag. Shortly after the SEC released its statement on June 18, Lamar issued a statement of his own on social media.
In doing so, Lamar called to change the flag and became Gunn’s first major committee chairman to publicly take that stand.
“The SEC statement certainly was not the reason I wanted to change the flag, but it provided the opportunity for me to come out publicly,” Lamar said. “The reason was that it was just the right thing to do. I believe in my heart that it was the right thing to do because there were fellow Mississippians that were hurt by its depictions in the way that hate groups had co-opted it. Those with hate in their hearts had co-opted this symbol and still others refused to deny themselves… and refused to put their other fellow human beings before themselves over a piece of cloth. You know, that’s the reason to change the flag.”
Lamar’s statement went viral nationally. House colleagues blew up his phone — some supportive, some questioning why he’d taken the step — and he wasn’t sure if the statement would help the leadership’s efforts to whip the votes.
Gunn later said that Lamar’s post inspired several House Republicans to come on board.
“Trey (Lamar) was with Rep. Nick Bain and Rep. Jody Steverson that night he released the statement, and he reported back to me the next morning that the two of them were on board,” Gunn said. “So as far as I knew, I previously had 12 (Republican) votes. Bain and Steverson made 14. So it felt like it was starting to move a little bit.”
The next day, on June 19, the NCAA released a statement that it would ban postseason championships and tournaments — including college baseball and softball regionals — from Mississippi until the state flag came down. Gunn said his sergeants had gotten a couple more soft commitments that day, but they still could only feel certain of 14 Republican votes — about two dozen fewer than needed.
Then the next day, June 20, the probability came into clearer focus with the news that Oliver had flipped.
“So Karl (Oliver) calls and says, ‘I’ve been talking to my wife, talking to my daughters, I don’t want them to be disappointed in me and I don’t want them to be embarrassed by me,’” Gunn recalled.
That reasoning from Oliver echoed the charge Gunn shared with the entire Republican caucus in an unplanned, emotional speech just a few days before on June 11.
“After we got Karl, I’m starting to think that this thing’s got a chance,” Gunn said. “And then we began to get word that others may be on board.”
Gunn hung up with White, and still watching his son at the baseball field in Louisiana, he dialed Shawn Parker, the newly elected president of the Mississippi Baptist Convention. Gunn, a former Baptist deacon himself, knew that public support from religious leaders could only help his effort to swing more Republican House votes.
“He’d been on the job for three months at that point, and all of a sudden this gets dumped in his lap. He’s a preacher, he just wants to share the gospel. He ain’t worried about politics,” Gunn said, laughing at the wild nature of the moment. “I told him it would be a big help if he could publicly support changing the flag, and he immediately agreed.”
While certainly a big ask, Parker had some cover. In 2016, the Southern Baptist Convention had passed a resolution urging the discontinued use of the Confederate battle flag in their churches — a decision that made headlines in Mississippi and across the nation.
Gunn, who in 2016 was serving as a trustee of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was among the thousands of Baptist leaders who voted to pass that resolution at the convention.
“We had already been working on possibly issuing some kind of statement when Philip (Gunn) called,” Parker told Mississippi Today. “But there was probably some sense of apprehension in all of our minds, and his call was a great source of encouragement for us to continue moving forward. I appreciated his determination.”
After the call with Parker, Gunn called Ligon Duncan, the chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary in Clinton and a nationally prominent Presbyterian leader. Duncan, like Parker, told Gunn he would also issue a public statement in support of changing the flag the next week.
Gunn traveled home from his son’s Louisiana baseball tournament that weekend feeling confident that the momentum was pushing them forward and that he would be able to whip the remaining necessary votes.
But on the morning of Monday, June 22, Gunn got a call from Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann that reminded him how fragile the moment was and that a single misstep could halt the progress made inside the Capitol. Gunn knew he needed to act quickly and decisively to keep it from falling apart.
Part four of the Mississippi Today’s series will publish on July 1, and part five will publish on July 2.
-- Article credit to Adam Ganucheau of Mississippi Today --