Mississippi Black Lawmaker On Taking Down The Flag: A Symbol Of 'Hate And Not Love' | Connecticut Public Radio
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Mississippi Black Lawmaker On Taking Down The Flag: A Symbol Of 'Hate And Not Love'

Jun 29, 2020
Originally published on June 29, 2020 6:10 pm

Mississippi plans to fly a new state flag — a flag without the Confederate battle emblem in the corner. The state House and Senate voted Sunday to retire the current flag, and Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves is expected to sign the measure.

Democratic state Sen. Derrick Simmons voted for the bill, which calls for a nine-member commission to design a new flag that includes the phrase "In God We Trust."

As an African American growing up and working in Mississippi, Simmons says the flag represents "hate and not love." It has flown since 1894.

"It was a very hateful oppressive and divisive symbol," he tells Morning Edition.

"Let's take this flag down," he says, "but let's also address all the other issues that we face in Mississippi." The poverty rate of Black Mississippians is among the highest in the country and African Americans in the state have been especially hard-hit by the coronavirus.

The vote comes as Americans across the country for weeks have been protesting against racial injustice and rejecting racist symbols, including statues.

The governor's communications director, Renae Eze, tells NPR that Reeves plans to sign the bill in the coming days. "The Governor does not want to rush this moment in history for our state," Eze writes in an email."Once he's had the opportunity to review it, Governor Reeves will sign the bill in the coming days."

Here are excerpts of the Morning Edition conversation with Simmons.

What arguments would you make when people would say the flag was a symbol of heritage?

I'd say it was a symbol of hate and not love. And it was a symbol of division and not unity. And I made it clear to people that it certainly was a flag that represented some Mississippians and not all.

What would go through your mind when you'd see that flag?

The flag was in the schools that I was educated in. The flag was flying in the businesses that I would frequent. The flag was actually flying in public spaces. For the entire eight years of my legislative career, I've had to walk into the Capitol and not only see the flag outside the Capitol but every morning we would do invocation and we would do a prayer and behind us we'd have the American flag and unfortunately, the Confederate flag.

Why do you think it's changing now?

There is a combination of issues. Certainly what is going on nationally is the impetus. You have people wanting to address the inevitable: the racial inequality in America. These systems have basically been at the underlining conditions of a lot of the problems that we are seeing. In Mississippi, of course, while the flag was just a symbol, the symbol is still like a symptom of the overall racial inequality that exists specifically in Mississippi.

And so I hope that this momentum continues in the state of Mississippi and this is just the start of a new chapter in Mississippi so that we can have a more bright, progressive and inclusive Mississippi.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Mississippi plans to fly a new state flag, a flag without the Confederate battle emblem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: By a vote of 37 to 14, the bill passes.

INSKEEP: The state Senate voted on Sunday to retire the current 126-year-old flag. Mississippi's Republican governor, Tate Reeves, has said he will sign the measure that calls for a commission to design a new flag. Senate Minority Leader Derrick Simmons is among the lawmakers who voted for the change, and he's on the line. Senator, good morning.

DERRICK SIMMONS: Good morning, Steve. Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: I just want to note, I'm doing the math here. So this is a flag from 1894, I guess, more than a generation after the Civil War. But it is a kind of combination of the two main Confederate flags from that war. Was there ever any doubt in your mind about what that flag stood for?

SIMMONS: It was never any doubt in my mind. It was a very hateful, oppressive and divisive symbol. And after 126 years of flying that flag in the state of Mississippi, Mississippi will soon have a new flag.

INSKEEP: I don't mean to recount the arguments you must have had all your life about this flag, but what did you say when people would push back and say, oh, no, this is just a symbol of our heritage?

SIMMONS: I said it was a symbol of hate and not love. And it was a symbol of division and not unity. And I made it clear to people that it certainly was a flag that represented some Mississippians, and not all. And so I had my own personal experiences regarding discrimination and had my father and grandfather that shared many of their experiences, and how the flag was just a constant reminder that communities of color or Black Americans in Mississippi was just still not part of Mississippi.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by a constant reminder? Would you be driving somewhere and see that flag? And what would go through your mind?

SIMMONS: Yes. Actually, the flag was in the schools that I was educated in. The flag was flying in the businesses that I would frequent. The flag was actually flying in public spaces. For the entire eight years of my legislative career, I've had to walk into the Capitol and not only see the flag outside of the Capitol, but every morning, we would do invocation. And we would do a prayer. And behind us, we'll have the American flag and, unfortunately, that Confederate flag.

INSKEEP: Why do you think that this has changed now?

SIMMONS: There is a combination of issues, Steve. Certainly, what is going on nationally is the impetus. You have people wanting to address the inevitable, the racial inequality in America. These systems have basically been at the underlining conditions of a lot of the problems that we are seeing in Mississippi, of course. While the flag was just a symbol, the symbol is still like a symptom of the overall racial inequality that exists specifically in Mississippi.

And so I mean, I hope that this momentum continues in the state of Mississippi and this is just the start of a new chapter in Mississippi so that we can have a more bright, progressive and inclusive Mississippi. So let's take this flag down. But let's also address all the other issues that we face in Mississippi.

INSKEEP: State Senator Derrick Simmons of Mississippi. Thank you very much, sir.

SIMMONS: Thank you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.