Jul 12, 2020

The Flag and the Fury

How do you actually make change in the world? For 126 years, Mississippi has had the Confederate battle flag on their state flag, and they were the last state in the nation where that emblem remained “officially” flying.  A few days ago, that flag came down. A few days before that, it coming down would have seemed impossible. Shima Oliaee dives into the story behind this de-flagging: a journey involving a clash of histories, designs, families, and even cheerleading. 

This episode was reported and produced by Shima Oliaee.

To read or listen to Kiese Laymon's memoir Heavyhttps://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Heavy/Kiese-Laymon/9781501125669.

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JAD ABUMRAD: Before we start, this podcast contains a fair amount of strong language.




KIESE LAYMON: I pledge to never be passive, patriotic or grateful in the face of American abuse. I pledge to always thoughtfully bite the self-righteous American hand that thinks it's feeding us. I pledge that white Mississippians and white Americans will never dictate who I choose to be or what symbols I choose imbue with meaning. I pledge to not allow American ideals of patriotism and masculinity to make me hard, abusive, generic, and brittle. I pledge to messily love our people and myself better than I did yesterday. I pledge to be the kind of free that makes justly winning and gently losing possible. To never ever confuse cowardice with courage. I pledge allegiance to the Mississippi freedom fighters who made all my pledges possible. I pledge allegiance to the baby Mississippi liberation fighters coming next. This is my pledge of allegiance to my United States of America and to my Mississippi. Ready or not, this is a pledge to my home. Are y’all standing up?


[ARCHIVE CLIP, politician: The resolution passes.]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, politician: History will be made here today.]


JAD: Okay. Mississippi.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Roy Wilkins: A savage, uncivilized state.]


JAD: A state of extremes.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Roy Wilkins: Murder and racial hatred.]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, singing: In Jackson, Mississippi ...]


JAD: The state where Emmett Till was brutally murdered. Medgar Evers was assassinated.


[ARCHIVE CLIP: And shot in the back by a single round from a high-powered rifle.]


JAD: The state with the highest number of lynchings in the Union, but also a staggeringly high number of Nobel, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners. The most charitable state in the Union. Mississippi is also the state with the highest percentage of Black people in America. And for the last 126 years, Mississippi has had a Confederate battle flag on their state flag. Sort of upper left hand corner. Red, white and blue stripes, Confederate battle flag upper left. Other states like South Carolina and Georgia would fly the Confederate flag on their state capitols, but one by one they took them off. Mississippi was the last holdout. Until last week. You might have heard about this on the news. I want to tell you the story behind this deflagging. It’s an amazing story. Something we’ve been following for months, because ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: Leave our flag alone!]


JAD: It's way more than just another story about taking down a thing.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: Just because we've had it for years, doesn't mean we need to keep it.]


JAD: This is a journey that involves a clash of histories.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: Honor!]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: Outright hate.]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: Freedom!]


JAD: Designs.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: Just hate.]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: And courage!]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: Just hate.]


JAD: Generations.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: There will be retribution.]


JAD: And philosophies about how to make change. This is a story that I've been working on with my Dolly Parton's America colleague Shima Oliaee. She'll start us off.


SHIMA OLIAEE: Okay, so story starts in a sea of red.


CLARA JUSTUS: It was just as far as the eye could see, Confederate flags. In the stands instead of pom poms, you'd see the flag waving like it was a pom pom. And then if they didn't have a flag they would take their shirts off and pin it on their bodies. It was like a sea of Confederate flags. But we just kind of saw it as that's their symbol.


SHIMA: Can you just say your full name and ...


CLARA JUSTUS: Okay, so Clara Justus. And I'm the Vice President of Business Complete Solutions in San Diego.


SHIMA: The place that Clara's talking about is the University of Mississippi or Ole Miss. This is a place where during football games they would roll out a Confederate flag that was as big as the football stand.


CLARA JUSTUS: It was massive.


ASHTON PITTMAN: The second biggest Confederate flag in the country.


SHIMA: That's Ashton Pittman.


ASHTON PITTMAN: Senior reporter at the Mississippi Free Press.


JAD: What's the biggest?


ASHTON PITTMAN: I do not know what the first is, but it was -- if you walked around, cheerleaders carrying Confederate flags, but it was everywhere.


SHIMA: But then the first domino falls.


JOHN HAWKINS: Would it be better for me to use my microphone as well?


SHIMA: Maybe. Well, you're using your cellphone, right?


JOHN HAWKINS: I'm gonna record it with my mic, but I can -- you tell me.


SHIMA: The movement to de-Dixie the Mississippi state flag, it is a long, convoluted, confusing, many-headed history. But you could argue that it really goes back to one guy: John Hawkins, Ole Miss class of 1984.


JOHN HAWKINS: I had a lot of different hats when I was at Ole Miss. Aside from being a student, I was busy when I arrived on campus trying to figure out how to get on the basketball team. Because I had been a pretty good high school player, a great scorer, and of course, you know, as fate would have it I got injured, wasn't as good a basketball player as I thought I was and went off to do some other things.


SHIMA: John got involved with student government.


JOHN HAWKINS: Yeah, I became President of the Black student body.


SHIMA: He was on all kinds of committees, was in a Black fraternity. He was basically a man about campus. Now just for context ...


JOHN HAWKINS: We only had about 500 Black students in the whole campus of what, 13,000? So what's that percentage-wise? Two percent, maybe three percent?


SHIMA: Closer to eight, but still ...


JOHN HAWKINS: So it was a really small number, so there never ...


SHIMA: And you've got to keep in mind that this was only 20 years after a man by the name of James Meredith ...


[NEWS CLIP: James H. Meredith.]


SHIMA: ... became the first Black student to enter the University of Mississippi.




[NEWS CLIP: The town becomes an armed battlefield.]


ASHTON PITTMAN: President Kennedy had to send the National Guard ...


[NEWS CLIP: Armed with tear gas and sidearms.]


ASHTON PITTMAN: ... over that.


[NEWS CLIP: Two men are killed, hundred and fifty are arrested after a night of terror.]


SHIMA: Thousands of federal troops, days of riots. It was rough. In any case, one day in John's sophomore year he's sitting in a Black Student Committee meeting and they're discussing the cheerleading squad. There had never been a Black cheerleader at Ole Miss in its 134 years of existence.


JOHN HAWKINS: And my good friend Clara Bibbs ...


CLARA BIBBS: There we go.


JOHN HAWKINS: ... who had always wanted to be an Ole Miss cheerleader, she ...


CLARA BIBBS: So I was like, gonna be trying out.


JOHN HAWKINS: ... her partner, who was helping her try out was a white male, which was in and of itself kind of unheard of at that time at Ole Miss, but it just spoke to the fact that things were starting to change on campus.




SHIMA: Problem was the white guy gets injured, and now Clara had no partner.


JOHN HAWKINS: She was in the lurch about two weeks or so before tryouts. And we were having this committee meeting trying to determine okay, so what can we do? You know, Clara's our best hope to ever achieve this. We just didn't have a solution. And someone [laughs] asked me if I would consider doing it, because I mean I was athletic enough ...


CLARA BIBBS: He was -- he's very tall and he's very strong. I'm, like, 5'1" and a half. John has to be 6'2", maybe 6'3".


JOHN HAWKINS: I mean, I never knew anything about cheerleading. I knew that, you know, Clara weighed about 110-115 pounds and, you know, in the weight room back in those days I could throw 115 pounds around all day. So ...


JAD: Okay.


JOHN HAWKINS: ... so I ended up saying, "Yeah, sure. I'll help her."




SHIMA: So for two weeks, John and Clara met up, practiced ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Hawkins: One of the fun aspects of learning to be a cheerleader for the first time is learning how to do partner steps.]


SHIMA: He crammed to learn all the moves.


CLARA BIBBS: Like what they call a chair extension.


SHIMA: Where she stands in front of him, he puts his hands ...


CLARA BIBBS: ... on your waist.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Hawkins: She gives a little jump.]


SHIMA: She hops up ...


CLARA BIBBS: The guy takes his right hand and puts it under your butt.


SHIMA: And she's sort of lifted up into the air to sit on his hand that's held high above his head.


CLARA BIBBS: He holds your other left leg with his hand.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Hawkins: High on the thigh, above the knee. Never on the knee.]


CLARA BIBBS: It was a lot of lifting of me. A lot of picking up.


JOHN HAWKINS: You know, pick up the girl, throw the girl as high as you can, catch the girl, and don't let her get hurt. Keep in mind, back in these days Ole Miss was the national cheerleading champion.


CLARA BIBBS: Very competitive.


JOHN HAWKINS: So being an Ole Miss cheerleader was a big deal.


SHIMA: Anyhow, John got up to speed and the two of them try out for judges along with hundreds of other mostly white students. And then ...


JOHN HAWKINS: There was this kind of fate that threw us a curveball because, you know, the process at Ole Miss was a little bit stacked.


CLARA BIBBS: Right, right, right. So the way the cheerleading squad at Ole Miss worked is that ...


JOHN HAWKINS: There was a qualifying process.


CLARA BIBBS: ... you had to try out.


JOHN HAWKINS: You'd have this huge tryout, where it would get narrowed down to ...


CLARA BIBBS: ... the top 10.


JOHN HAWKINS: ... the top 10 males and the top 10 females. Well as fate would have it, we both make the top 10. We both make the cut.


SHIMA: Oh, wow!


JAD: Wow, that must've been a pretty big deal!


JOHN HAWKINS: Yeah. And that in and of itself was phenomenal.


SHIMA: The complication was how the process worked is that after that first cut ...


CLARA BIBBS: Then it went to a vote.


SHIMA: A popular vote.


JOHN HAWKINS: So once you've gone through the gauntlet and demonstrated that you had the ability, it then became a popularity contest on campus where you then had to go out and campaign and get your groups of friends, fraternities, sororities, whatever to vote you in.


CLARA BIBBS: So the votes were paper. Just by word of mouth.


JOHN HAWKINS: Of course you know who I was campaigning for. [laughs]


JAD: Right.


JOHN HAWKINS: I was campaigning for Clara and trying to see if we could get her on that squad.


SHIMA: But John was a very visible guy.


CLARA BIBBS: Whereas I was the opposite. You know, I was a journalist, wasn't in any sororities.


SHIMA: To make a long story short ...


JOHN HAWKINS: I ended up getting elected.


CLARA BIBBS: But I didn't.


JAD: Oh, that's complicated!


JOHN HAWKINS: Yeah, it was -- it was a real complicated issue.


JAD: What were the conversations with Clara like right after that?


JOHN HAWKINS: It was devastating, because I didn't want to do it. I mean, I was only there for her.


CLARA BIBBS: I was at a friend's house and someone called me. I was like, "Okay. I didn't make it. Not a big deal." I think everybody was just in shock. Like, wait a minute. This wasn't how it was supposed to go. [laughs] They were like, "It wasn't supposed to go down like this. How did this happen?" I think is kind of how everybody looked at it, and they were -- they kind of looked at me like, "Oh my God, we're so sorry!" I'm like, "Don't be sorry." You have to understand coming out of Jim Crow, I wasn't used to things going my way anyway.


SHIMA: Clara told us she grew up in a rural town in Central Mississippi, that even as late as 1976 -- 1976! -- had separate entrances for Black and white citizens.


SHIMA: And you guys -- and just to be clear, you guys never talked it out at that time?


CLARA BIBBS: No, we didn't.


JOHN HAWKINS: Because I mean, even before she and I could have that conversation about what does it mean and so forth, the evening of the election ...


SHIMA: April 22, 1982.


JOHN HAWKINS: It was such a momentous occasion ...


SHIMA: John says initially the vibe was positive.


JOHN HAWKINS: There was a great spirit on campus. Both, you know, Black and white kids really were celebrating that achievement in and of itself.


SHIMA: Reporters though chased him around campus, finally cornered him in the student union, and then began to bombard him with some difficult questions.


CLARA BIBBS: After that I'm thinking, "Holy cow! You know, what did -- what did I get him into?"


SHIMA: One reporter asked would he be comfortable with a white, female partner as the ghost of Emmett Till entered the room. Apparently John answers, "This is a new age, and the time has passed for prejudice."


JOHN HAWKINS: And of course that's when the infamous question comes up, when someone asks me about the Confederate flag and if I was gonna follow Ole Miss tradition and wave the rebel flag.


SHIMA: That's how every game started, with male cheerleaders running out and waving a giant battle flag.


JOHN HAWKINS: Listen to me, I never expected to have to ask that question.


SHIMA: John said he literally had never contemplated it, because he never thought he'd be a cheerleader to begin with. And that moment, between when he was asked the question and when he answered, a few things went through his mind. He thought about his grandmother.


JOHN HAWKINS: She died when she was 102 years old.




JOHN HAWKINS: So imagine this for a moment: This is my grandmother. Not my great- great-grandmother. This is my grandmother, whose mother was born a slave.


SHIMA: He thought about the fact that when he got chosen for the cheerleading squad, he suddenly started seeing a whole lot more of those rebel flags being carried around campus, almost as if they came out in reaction to his presence. He thought about how the tuition he paid helped ...


JOHN HAWKINS: ... buy those flags that we had no interest in. And so when the question came up about the flag ...


SHIMA: He says he just looked at the reporters square in the eyes and said ...


JOHN HAWKINS: I said, "Of course not." The answer was no.


JAD: And that just came out? That wasn't premeditated?


JOHN HAWKINS: No, it was instinctive. I had -- hadn't even thought about it.


CLARA BIBBS: For a Black person like John to carry the Confederate flag is like a Jewish person carrying a swastika.


SHIMA: From the moment he said no, the story exploded.


JOHN HAWKINS: Went the equivalent of viral. Keep in mind, this is before social media.


[NEWS CLIP: The Confederate flag is at the heart of an emotional racial dispute at the University of Mississippi.]


JOHN HAWKINS: We talk about agitation [laughs] in the context of George Floyd, no I know -- I can tell you what agitation looks like.


[NEWS CLIP: The flag of the Confederacy has always been the cause of not-so-subtle agitation, but those feelings had been unspoken until the university's first Black cheerleader refused to carry the flag.]


JOHN HAWKINS: People were leading hostile protests on the campus.


SHIMA: John received death threats.


[NEWS CLIP: The Ku Klux Klan held an off-campus march in protest.]


SHIMA: Someone set his dorm room on fire.


CURTIS "PEDEE" SCOTT: Probably was the most hated person in the South, you know? [laughs]


SHIMA: This is Curtis "PEDEE" Scott. He was in John's fraternity at the time.


CURTIS "PEDEE" SCOTT: John and I was best friends, and they was two doors down.


SHIMA: He told me the story about just how bad things got. There was one night he says when they were all at the fraternity house ...


CURTIS "PEDEE" SCOTT: And the police came in and said, "We want you all to turn off the light, get down on the floor." And we was like, "What is going on?" All of a sudden, we could hear the chants coming from afar, and it was getting louder and louder. So, you know, we looked out there and we saw the mob marching down Jackson Street.


[NEWS CLIP: 1,000 white students held a noisy rally in support of the flag earlier this week.]


[NEWS CLIP: Flag-waving white students marched on a Black fraternity house.]


CURTIS "PEDEE" SCOTT: I will never forget the chant. "We want Hawkins! We want Hawkins!" It was almost as though they wanted to break in the house or either want us to get John and throw him to the mob.


SHIMA: Curtis says Black students from around the campus started running to the fraternity house to defend them, but the police stopped them.


CURTIS "PEDEE" SCOTT: Thank God that didn't happen because that would have been a horrible scene. I mean, it would've been totally horrible.


JOHN HAWKINS: You know, state police was called out at one point.


CURTIS "PEDEE" SCOTT: State troopers, city police.


SHIMA: Which reminded a lot of people of 1962.


JOHN HAWKINS: Mobs came out, stopped traffic.


[NEWS CLIP: Black students held a counter-demonstration, demanding that the university find another symbol.]


JOHN HAWKINS: That really carried through into the full year. When I was on the squad, game days were [laughs] were quite interesting.


SHIMA: John says before games they'd take him from a safe house, sneak him into the stadium where he'd then lead cheers for people who booed him.


JAD: Wow. It must've been really lonely standing on that field.


JOHN HAWKINS: [laughs] Well, not only on that field, but on every field every time we showed up for a football game.


SHIMA: After 12 football games of this, 20-something basketball games, continued protests, counter-protests, the chancellor of the school ...


CURTIS "PEDEE" SCOTT: I think his name was Porter.


SHIMA: ... a man named Porter Fortune, issued a statement.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Porter Fortune: If there is a feeling that racism exists on our campus, I want to be the first to attempt to get rid of it.]


CURTIS "PEDEE" SCOTT: The mob, they marched on his mansion. [laughs] So, you know, so he probably was like, "What do I need to do? I feel like my life is in jeopardy now."


[NEWS CLIP: And as a result, the flag has been dropped as the school's symbol.]


JAD: Can you read that article from April 23, 1983?


JOHN HAWKINS: You know I'm an old man now, so if I can get my glasses if I need them. "But the Chancellor of the University of Mississippi trying to defuse a race -- a racial dispute said yesterday the Confederate flag would no longer be used as a school symbol." This was the lightning rod event.


SHIMA: The NAACP for years had been thinking about starting a campaign against the display of the Confederate flag. They wanted to take this down. But they thought there was no way it could ever happen in Mississippi. It took this one guy to say, "No, I'm not gonna wave the flag" for everyone to just ponder the idea that it could be possible.


JOHN HAWKINS: When I've subsequently talked to Clara, you know, I think she's even said that, "You know, maybe God chose you for that moment moreso than me because He knew that you can handle it."


CLARA BIBBS: I think in hindsight, that was -- that was meant to be. It was meant to be that way. He stood his ground, he didn't carry it. He didn't let them push him off the squad. I don't know that I would have had that strength. So I'm glad it was John.


JOHN HAWKINS: You know, sometimes the universe lines up in such a way that it's the time for change.


JAD: It's so weird to be talking to you right at this minute, because right now literally as we are doing this interview, the Mississippi state legislature is meeting and they may be about to take down the flag.


LAURIN STENNIS: I just got a text from a senator saying in 10 minutes, like -- literally, like, in five minutes the flag could go down.


JOHN HAWKINS: Well, hopefully they'll do the right thing.


JAD: Yeah.


JOHN HAWKINS: It's long overdue.


JAD: So in 1983, the University of Ole Miss decides no more Confederate flags can be flown at Ole Miss. This was the first domino. But it was only a baby domino.


[NEWS CLIP: The white students applauded the chancellor's decision to permit individuals to carry the flag.]


JOHN HAWKINS: He's trying to thread the needle, right?


[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: As long as I can bring it to the game, I don't care.]


JAD: And the even trickier part was, since the Confederate flag was actually embedded in the Mississippi state flag and had been since 1894, and since Ole Miss was a state institution, the Confederate battle flag was still there by default in front of the school administration buildings flapping in the breeze, and would remain that way for another 32 years. Until ...


[NEWS CLIP: It is heartbreaking videotape taken just before the church massacre that shocked the world.


JAD: 2015, a deranged racist walks into a historic Black church in South Carolina, kills nine people, and is later found in an old photograph to be holding the Confederate battle flag.


[NEWS CLIP: Last night, the University of Mississippi Student Government Association voted to remove the flag bearing the Confederate battle emblem.]


JAD: The school then finally decides they cannot fly the state flag.


[NEWS CLIP: The recent racially-motivated church shootings in South Carolina giving momentum to those who want it taken down.]


JAD: So at this point, the flagpoles are empty. And not just at Ole Miss. All across the state you begin to see businesses removing the Mississippi state flag. Question was: What to put in its place? And that's when you start to see another flag being hoisted. And this brings us to Chapter Two.




JAD: To Laurin.


LAURIN STENNIS: Here we go. Give me a hug -- oh, we can't do that. [laughs]


JAD: We Zoomed with Laurin Stennis for the first time back in April.


LAURIN STENNIS: Oh hell, stop! Roomba just came on. [laughs]


JAD: Oh really? Oh, I just met my first Roomba just a couple days ago. They're so loud.


LAURIN STENNIS: Damn you, Roomba!


JAD: It was early pandemic, Laurin was quarantined in her home/art studio in Jackson, Mississippi with her cat and dog and Roomba. Her journey to the center of the Mississippi flag fight takes a very different trajectory than John's.




JAD: Around the same time that he was stepping foot on Ole Miss campus for the first time, she was talking to birds.


LAURIN STENNIS: Well, my mother fed birds when I was growing up and, you know, these goldfinches that are just stunning when they're in their summer plumage. I just was entranced as a kid, and -- to the point that I started thinking birds were talking to me. [laughs] But there's a pill for that, yeah. [laughs]


JAD: Laurin says her childhood was pretty idyllic.


LAURIN STENNIS: I would lay down in the middle of clover and watch clouds. I would get little locust shells off the trees. You know, played in the creeks and looked at tadpoles.


JAD: And when you were that young, like seven or eight, did you have any concept of -- that your grandfather was who he was?


LAURIN STENNIS: Not exactly. I really had no sense of kind of who my grandfather was in the larger sense.


JAD: Laurin's grandfather, by the way ...


[NEWS CLIP: Speaking with United States Senator John C. Stennis of Mississippi.]


JAD: ... is John Stennis. Or was John Stennis, he died in 1995. Southern Democrat who served in the Senate for over 41 years. And for much of that time ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John C. Stennis: We gone to the extreme on civil rights. We've just let it run away.]


JAD: ... he was a staunch segregationist.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John C. Stennis: No doubt.]


LAURIN STENNIS: I think I became conscious of that probably in high school, really.


JAD: I'm curious what that was like to learn that, because if you read his early letters ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John C. Stennis: Colored people on the employment list.]


JAD: ... he talks really openly about how he believes Black people are inferior ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John C. Stennis: And we've let them do largely as they wanted to do and didn't punish them.]


JAD: ... the fact that he opposed the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John C. Stennis: They must be stopped if we have personal liberty and freedom left for anyone.]


JAD: ... even a holiday for Martin Luther King.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John C. Stennis: And I'm certain in my belief.]


JAD: How do you process that, given that, given what you believe and also the fact that he is your grandfather?


LAURIN STENNIS: I mean, you know, hearing and reading various things, you know, I get a little nauseated to be honest. It's twofold. One, because that's just such a revolting belief. But that I'm related -- you know, that he was a white guy born in 1901, less than 40 years after the Civil War in a rural, unincorporated town. You know, I mean it's like, am I shocked? No.


JAD: Hmm.


LAURIN STENNIS: I mean, I'm able to see him in his context. I would love it if he had been this amazing, you know, guy who was able to transcend everything he was taught and, you know, came out as this early progressive leader. It was wrong. It's indefensible. But am I shocked? Not particularly.


JAD: Laurin's political awakening and subsequent interest in flags was slow to take by her own admission. After high school, she went to Tulane.


LAURIN STENNIS: I left Tulane with a 1.7 GPA because I just quit going to class. I think at that point I was just kind of raging against the machine, and I didn't even fully understand what the machine was and that really I was part of it.


JAD: She says she started to see and understand that machine when she transferred from Tulane to Millsaps back in Mississippi, and then fell into a rabbit hole of ethics classes and women's studies courses, and soon began to write cutting essays about politics for an alt-progressive newspaper.


KIESE LAYMON: We were just -- we were initially just shocked that someone who came from what appeared to us to be, like, such voracious racist beginnings could give her, at that point, 21- 22-year-old life to causes that would probably make her grandfather, like, squeal.


JAD: This is author Kiese Laymon again, who started us off with that alternative pledge. He and Laurin worked on that paper together at Millsaps and they politically organized together.


KIESE LAYMON: You know, growing up we were always kind of taught that there was a group of people called good white folks, and those were ...




KIESE LAYMON: ... you know, and you questioned the motives of good white folks. But you know, once somebody, like, bleeds over into that category, like, you know, we knew early on that Laurin was good white folk.


JAD: Okay, so let's jump forward to your flag. When did you begin that journey?


LAURIN STENNIS: It started when I moved back.


JAD: This is after she had gone to school, moved away, become a social worker and an artist and then returned.


LAURIN STENNIS: Bought a little house and just instinctively, you know, it was like I'm home and I was excited and I was proud and I liked my little house and I wanted to put out a flag.


JAD: Huh.


LAURIN STENNIS: You know, I'm back in Mississippi. And I would never, never have our current state flag. And I just -- I just kind of sat down and just thought, "This is ridiculous. This is absurd that Mississippians didn't have a flag that anyone can fly without a moment's hesitation." So after reflecting on that, I began to do some research. So I ended up down at archives.


JAD: She said she just wanted to know if there were other options out there besides the 1894 Mississippi state flag with the Confederate battle flag on it. And she says the first thing that she encountered was that there was a flag before that flag.


LAURIN STENNIS: The Magnolia flag, as it was called. This was the flag that people said was the first state flag of Mississippi.


JAD: It was created in 1861. What you see is a white background and cartoonish green tree in the middle.


LAURIN STENNIS: It's like, it's so ugly it's cute. Because I mean, the magnolia tree is a blob.


KIESE LAYMON: Yeah, it just looks like a -- it looked like a Afro. It looked like a big-ass green Afro. Like a wopped -- what we used to call, like, a wopped Afro.


SHIMA: What's a wopped Afro?


KIESE LAYMON: Like a Afro. You know, Afro's supposed to be round, you know? When we used to have 'Fros, like our 'Fro sometimes wouldn't be, like, round. They'd be, like, off to the side if you fell asleep or ...


JAD: [laughs]


SHIMA: [laughs]


KIESE LAYMON: It just -- it just wasn't -- I mean, to me that's the first thing I thought. I was like, "Oh, that shit looks like an Afro in the middle but it's not shaped right."


JAD: Okay, so Laurin initially thought, "Oh, I'll just fly the Magnolia flag." Problem is ...


LAURIN STENNIS: It was commissioned and designed for the newly-seceded Republic of Mississippi of 1861.


JAD: Oh.


SHIMA: Oh, wow.


JAD: There you go. Okay.


LAURIN STENNIS: And I was like, "Uh-uh."


JAD: At a certain point Laurin just thought, "Well, I'm an artist. Let me see what I can come up with."


LAURIN STENNIS: I -- I started to kind of doodle. I started to -- because I knew flags that I love. Like, Tennessee has a great flag. Colorado, New Mexico. You know, I knew good flags when I saw them and I thought, "What is it?"


JAD: That question led her to the wonderful world of vexillology.


LAURIN STENNIS: It took me forever to be able to say it, but it's the study of flags.


JAD: There's a whole field of study about flags?


LAURIN STENNIS: It is primarily a bunch of old white guys ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: This is a flag.]


LAURIN STENNIS: ... that'll mansplain ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: And this is a flag.]


LAURIN STENNIS: ... to you to death.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: And this is a flag. And this is a flag.]


LAURIN STENNIS: They were so excited when I joined the North American Vexillological Association. I was certainly, I think, the youngest member. And yeah, one of their only female members.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: And this is a flag.]


JAD: She ultimately got to work coming up with a design that looks a little like a deconstructed remixed American flag. You've got three vertical stripes, red, white, red.


LAURIN STENNIS: And the red color really symbolizes the blood spilled by Mississippians who have given their lives for liberty and justice.


JAD: In the middle of the flag you have a circle of stars.


LAURIN STENNIS: When I was looking at Indigenous art among tribes that were native to Mississippi even before statehood, I would see a circular or a spiral element in some of the work.


JAD: The circle, she says, was a nod to them, also to the endless cycles of history.


LAURIN STENNIS: You know, no beginning, no end.


JAD: There are precisely 19 stars in the circle for the 19 states that joined the Union before Mississippi. And inside the circle ...


LAURIN STENNIS: The star in the middle is the 20th, and it's the biggest and the best, and that's us.


JAD: Laurin took that mock-up and sent it to a guy ...


TED KAYE: Recording starting now.


JAD: ... named Ted Kaye.


TED KAYE: I'm the Secretary of the North American Vexillological Association.


SHIMA: He's famous in the flag world.


LAURIN STENNIS: Yeah. He's a god.


SHIMA: Ted literally wrote the book Good Flag, Bad Flag, where he outlines the five principals of good flag design.


TED KAYE: Simplicity, meaningful symbolism, few colors, no lettering or seals and distinctiveness.


LAURIN STENNIS: So I emailed him and said, "You don't know me from Adam's housecat, but here's what I have and I would love your feedback." And he was so kind and so generous. He wrote back and he said, "I love your design. All I would do is make the stars ...


TED KAYE: Bigger.


LAURIN STENNIS: ... bigger."


TED KAYE: As big as you can get them.


LAURIN STENNIS: "You know, but you've got a top 10 flag design, top 10 United States flag design here. It's great."


TED KAYE: It may well be showing Mississippians that a different flag could represent the state.


LAURIN STENNIS: "And good luck with that."


TED KAYE: But I've had informal conversations with at least five different people who are working on proposed flags in Mississippi.


JAD: Like -- like, recently?


TED KAYE: In the last couple years, yes.


JAD: Having a good design, says Ted, is just the beginning. And there's a lot more to flags than what's on them. In our conversation, he walked us through the long history of flags and I gotta say it sort of put the whole Mississippi flag fight in a new context.


TED KAYE: Flags started out as markers on the battlefield. And this true all the way up through the Civil War. It's very important to know where your troops are on the battlefield, and they are marked by flags.


SHIMA: Imagine, he says, two armies face off. It's a melee. The sides get confused and you need to regroup. You look for the flag and you run to the flag.


TED KAYE: So it's important to have someone carry that flag. And one of the problems when you're carrying a flag is you can't shoot back. You are defenseless and everybody wants to shoot at you because if you can knock down the enemy's flag, you reduce their ability to know where their troops are. So the culture of the military was to imbue great honor in being the flag-bearer because that's what you needed to do to get someone to sacrifice. There are stories of battles in the Civil War where there would be one charge across the battlefield. One would be shot, the next guy would pick it up. He'd be shot, the next guy would pick it up. He'd be shot. Six people would die carrying that flag. So it's very important in military propaganda I would say to have people feel strongly about the flag.


JAD: Oh, that's so interesting! Like, in some sense the way in which we revere and honor and sing to and then fight over the flag is a direct spiritual line back to the battlefield.


TED KAYE: It could well be.


SHIMA: Add to that, he says, in America we don't have a king or queen. We put all of that deference up on our flag. And you feel the emotional weight of that when you look back to 2001.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ronnie Musgrove: Governor Tuck, Mr. Speaker, members of the Mississippi Legislature, Chief Justice Pittman ...]


SHIMA: After years of people submitting bills to change the flag that went absolutely nowhere, in '88, '90, '92, '93, the governor at the time, Ronnie Musgrove ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ronnie Musgrove: I implore you to hear our people again.]


SHIMA: ... urged the legislature to give the decision to the people ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ronnie Musgrove: I urge you to put this issue on the ballot.]


SHIMA: ... in a referendum. And leading up to that vote there were a series of town halls across Mississippi.


[NEWS CLIP: Tonight's first Friday flag special features a representative sampling of the views expressed by Mississippians at the five public hearings dealing with the future of Mississippi's flag.]


SHIMA: You can watch these town halls online. They took place in auditoriums, church basements. And they are -- well, they're battles.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: Where does it stop?]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: So we are tired of this onslaught against the Confederate heritage. It needs to stop and it needs to stop right now.]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: Our state flag represents grit, guts, and cajones! Our state flag -- our state flag represents pride!]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: You white people don’t get it!]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: This is the year 2000! We will not go back. We will not go back. That must flag must be changed. I’ve lived all over the country. We are the laughing stock of America. That flag represents Mississippi being 50 in education. 50 in per-capita income. Number one in infant mortality. Number one in lynching. We cannot afford to keep that flag. We must move forward!]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: This flag is just like my wife. You mess with my wife, you'll get your ass kicked! That’s all there is to it.]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: Our state flag -- you listen up. You listenin' over there? Our state flag represents blood, sweat and tears of countless Southerners who are a far sight better than any of y'all. Now listen, Mr. Winter?]


SHIMA: Mr. Winter was the head of the flag commission, former governor. He was in the room.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: You are despicable. You are an anathema. You are an anathema to what is honorable in this state!]




[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: You have -- hey, hey! No, no, no, no, no. It's my time! My time!]




[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: Hey listen, listen. You have been nothing but a parasite your entire career. You’re a sorry lawyer. You’re gutless. You are worthy of being tarred and feathered and run out of this state.]




SHIMA: It goes on and on like this. One of the craziest moments in a sea of crazy is when a 17-year-old white girl with bright orange hair steps up to the mic.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, girl: I am a young girl working in a grocery store environment. I do work with Blacks and I have several -- not just one or two, but several friends who are Black. One person said, “Where would the slaves in America be today if it weren't for slavery?" They’d probably still be in Africa enslaved. Or other European nations. Another person asked me to point out most -- not all -- of the African American race living in America today got their last name from their masters. Are you prepared to give up your name? I don't think you are. Because if you get my flag I will get your name. [SCREAMING] Wait, I’m not finished! Take your pick and get out!]


SHIMA: So that was 2001. And before we get back to Laurin, as you watch these videos one thing that you can't help but ask yourself is, "Where do some of these people get these ideas from?"


ASHTON PITTMAN: Right. But I will say that ...


SHIMA: This is a question that Ashton Pittman, the reporter we spoke to earlier asked himself. And he started to actually track down some of the people in the video, including the orange-haired girl, who by the way is a radiologist today and was valedictorian of her high school class. And what he discovered is that most of them went to what's called segregation academies.


ASHTON PITTMAN: Yes. Almost all of them were set up in either 1969, 1970 or 1971. I mean, this Supreme Court ruling ...


[NEWS CLIP: The school desegregation ordered in Mississippi began today.]


ASHTON PITTMAN: ... to desegregate the public schools came in December, 1969.


[NEWS CLIP: Reaction to the ruling was predictable, angry and swift.]


ASHTON PITTMAN: By the start of the school year ...


[NEWS CLIP: The whites are abandoning the public schools.]


ASHTON PITTMAN: January of 1970 ...


[NEWS CLIP: Private schools are appearing in great numbers.]


ASHTON PITTMAN: ... you had white kids not returning to their public schools and going to makeshift schools that were set up in white churches ...


[NEWS CLIP: White volunteers are converting a tent factory into classrooms.]


ASHTON PITTMAN: ... or in makeshift buildings.


[NEWS CLIP: Many of these schools represent a last resort for white parents determined to resist federal desegregation orders.]


ASHTON PITTMAN: Like, that's the origin of a ton of these academies. I think at one point there were like ...


[NEWS CLIP: And one estimate is they number in the thousands.]


JAD: Wow.


ASHTON PITTMAN: Yeah. They went up overnight. So if you make sure your kids only go to white schools with other white kids, you don't have to worry about, you know, maybe your kids developing some empathy for their Black classmates, having a greater understanding of viewpoints that are outside of that kind of white supremacist mindset. And in 2001 -- and still today, honestly -- a lot of these private academies that popped up in 1970, 1971, even in 2001, a lot of them were still either all white or, you know, 99, 98 percent white. And that's still true today.


SHIMA: In fact, Ashton told us that he and his husband William found that over a third of the current Mississippi senators today attended segregation academies.


JAD: In any case, in that 2001 referendum ...


[NEWS CLIP: 64 percent chose the 1894 flag over the alternative.]


JAD: Mississippi voted to keep the state flag, Confederate battle flag and all.


LAURIN STENNIS: And people were like, well, 65 percent of the people in Mississippi voted to keep the flag. No, 65 percent of the people who showed up that day, but only 23 percent of our population showed up to vote that day.


JAD: Suffice to say, the vote went along racial lines. But the mostly white pro-flag contingent, unsurprisingly, had better turnout.


LAURIN STENNIS: At that point, I will admit, I got -- it was a little daunting.


JAD: As Laurin was doodling new flag designs, rooting around in the archives and reading all the letters people sent during that 2001 referendum, she started to wonder, how do you prevent that from happening again? I mean, obviously part of it is entrenched and systemic. Part of it, it occurred to her, was just a pattern that she had seen in her social work, where one person saying "Stop," only causes the person they're saying it to to dig in harder.


LAURIN STENNIS: This is kind of where the psychology part comes in. I began to realize that many of the other previous efforts took the angle of trying to shame some Mississippians.


JAD: Mm-hmm.


LAURIN STENNIS: Psychologically, if you're saying -- yeah, that's the hashtag that a lot of people were using.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, protesters: Take it down! Take it down! Take it down!]


LAURIN STENNIS: "Take it down, take it down, take it down." Now, psychologically, if you're saying I'm going to take something from you, even if you're not that attached to it ...


SHIMA: [laughs] That's so true.


LAURIN STENNIS: ... you might start to squeeze it a little bit.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: This flag is just like my wife!]


LAURIN STENNIS: And be like, "No, wait a minute."


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: You mess with my wife, you'll get your ass kicked!]


LAURIN STENNIS: The psychology of loss is really strong. But if I'm offering you something and I'm doing something positive and I'm not threatening you, it just makes sense. And so my -- my -- my hashtag has been #PutItUp.


JAD: Okay, so 2015 after Laurin had designed her flag, workshopped it a bit with Ted Kaye, she puts the design on Facebook.


LAURIN STENNIS: I didn’t have any plan at that point.


JAD: She said it was just for her friends to see. But then a few things happen. There’s the mass shooting at the Black church in South Carolina. Ole Miss then votes to take down the state flag on their campus. And in the wake of that, Laurin gets a message from a state senator saying ...


LAURIN STENNIS: By the way, I just introduced a bill to change the state flag to your flag. And I typed "What?"


SHIMA: Oh, wow!


LAURIN STENNIS: She had not reached out to me. She had just seen what I was doing on Facebook and was like, "I'm gonna go for it." So that really got the ball rolling.


JAD: That particular bill didn’t go anywhere.


LAURIN STENNIS: Once again, all flag bills died in committee.


JAD: But ...


LAURIN STENNIS: Oh, game on. So I ...


JAD: ... she went ahead and manufactured a bunch of her flags anyway, took 'em to a local flag store in Jackson, Mississippi.


LAURIN STENNIS: Y'all keep the money. I just -- I just ask if you will please make it affordable.


JAD: Because this was a moment when business after business was following Ole Miss’ lead and taking that state flag down, which left a lot of empty flag poles for her flag to go up. And within a year her flag, which she called the “Mississippi hospitality flag” but everybody else called “the Stennis flag” ...


LAURIN STENNIS: It was the number one-selling flag in the state. Which is ...


SHIMA: Oh, wow!


JAD: She was beginning to outsell the 1894 state flag many times over.


LAURIN STENNIS: I mean, that -- that flag store is making bank! And more and more it’s caught on and you see it flying more places. But last -- not this current session that got called because of the pandemic but the session before that, I was approached by a Republican lawmaker who said, "Have you thought about doing a specialty license plate?"


JAD: Her and this Republican lawmaker cook up a plan that when people order these vanity plates -- these are license plates where you have special messages on them -- those plates would arrive with her flag on the license plate, rather than the actual state flag.


LAURIN STENNIS: He said, "Let's just not draw any attention to it." Because it turns out that the way they pass the specialty tags, they group them all together in one bill and just kind of pass them at the end of the session. And so people may or may not read it very carefully. [laughs] So I had to sit on it. I didn't say a word and it passed. We've already raised close to $40,000 for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Museum of Mississippi History, because I chose them as the recipient for the proceeds.


SHIMA: It's like you guys are leading a quiet revolution.


LAURIN STENNIS: Well, I would never use the term, like, revolution or whatever because that's threatening to people.


SHIMA: Yeah.


LAURIN STENNIS: I am -- I am way behind the scenes and I'm really quiet, versus when people go, "Change the Flag Rally," I'm like, "Oh shit! Oh shit!"


JAD: The whole time that’s been Laurin’s approach. Keep it stealth. No referendums, no public debates. Just get it out there on cars and banks and fraternities and bars so that people start seeing it.


LAURIN STENNIS: "Oh yeah, my neighbor has that. Oh yeah, I saw that at Steve's Diner downtown." You know, it's like, that's how it happens. It becomes inevitable. It's like, we're almost there. We're almost there.


KIESE LAYMON: I mean, you know, my thing with Laurin is like, I just think she knows white people in a -- in a way that I don't. I mean, I think white people have talked to her and said things to her that they’ve never said to me.


SHIMA: In one my phone calls with Kiese Laymon -- Laurin’s friend, writer -- I asked him what he thinks about the stealth approach.


KIESE LAYMON: I'm not gonna say that that's wrong. I just think the interesting thing about Laurin -- and this is to her credit, I guess -- is that all of her moves seem to be predicated on, like, the POV of the white folks, right?




KIESE LAYMON: Like, this is what they'll do, this is what they'll feel, this is what -- and I feel that but -- but there’s a -- but there's a large population of the state that is not those people. Do you know what I'm saying? So I'm not trying to disagree with Laurin. She's talking pragmatically, you know what I'm saying? I get it. I feel it. I just can't always be thinking about what -- what the racist white people are gonna do.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: The civil rights movement is over!]


SHIMA: We started talking about those 2001 town hall videos.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: It ended when you started trying to put me down.]


SHIMA: How if you watch the whole thing, there's a pattern that emerges. You see a lot of Black people dressed in their Sunday best.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: Excuse me. Let me finish talking please, sir. Thank you.]


SHIMA: And making a deliberate point to speak respectfully and calmly.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: I hope God put on my heart to say something that might change somebody's mind.]


SHIMA: Whereas, you see a lot of the white people ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: [shouting] Our state flag, you listen -- you listening over there?]


SHIMA: Just yelling.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: All of those reasons ...]




KIESE LAYMON: That is why I'm -- I literally had to leave because, like, it's humiliating when you always approach these people with that sort of kindness in the face of them telling you that you better fucking shut the fuck up and watch us commemorate your suffering. And where like, I heard what one gentlemen said a few minutes ago ...


SHIMA: [laughs] Yes.


KIESE LAYMON: ... about me not being worth a damn. I would just like to -- you know what I mean? Like, that's not -- that's not -- that don't feel natural to me.


SHIMA: One of the things that Kiese is famous for in Mississippi, in addition to his writing, is for getting into a major dust-up at Millsaps with a bunch of white fraternity boys who’d dressed in blackface and Afro wigs and called his girlfriend the N-word.


KIESE LAYMON: I'm sure you saw Fannie Lou Hamer when she talked about what happened to her in 1963 in the jail, right? Did you ever see that?


SHIMA: The Fannie Lou Hamer. Is that what you said?


KIESE LAYMON: Yeah. Fannie Lou Hamer’s speech where she's talking about ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Fannie Lou Hamer: I was carried to the county jail and put in the booking room.]


KIESE LAYMON: ... getting arrested in 1963 and how she was in a jail. And she -- she heard another woman down the hall getting beaten.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Fannie Lou Hamer: They beat her, I don’t know how long. It wasn't too long before three white men came to my cell.]


KIESE LAYMON: The guards came in and they made Black men beat her damn near to death.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Fannie Lou Hamer: And I laid on my face. The first Negro began to beat me.]


KIESE LAYMON: Fucked up her eye. Fucked up her kidneys.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Fannie Lou Hamer: And I was beat by the first Negro until he was exhausted.]


KIESE LAYMON: I mean, I can't listen to it without crying. Like, she is talking about white men putting her in prison, making Black incarcerated men beat the fuck out of her 'til she’s damn near dead.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Fannie Lou Hamer: All of this is on account of we want to register.]


KIESE LAYMON: Just because she wanted the fucking right to vote. But -- but the wonder to me, is that she could comport herself to tell that story.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Fannie Lou Hamer: Is this America?]


KIESE LAYMON: You know what I mean? Like, she was so ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Fannie Lou Hamer: The land of the free and the home of the brave?]


KIESE LAYMON: ... prepared. Even though she's, like, reaching into, like, this well of fucking, like, horror that she should have never had to experience. It is ancestral. Like, people in the face of terror and ultimate fucking humiliation have to comport themselves in particular ways that white folks just never, ever have to do. And that shit is just foul. Do you know what I mean? Like, that's why at the end of the day, I'm just like, fuck! Yeah. So anyway ...


JAD: Okay, so up until about a month and a half ago, here’s where we were at. You had Laurin quietly campaigning, Kiese wondering if quiet was the way to go. And you had Tate Reeves ...


[NEWS CLIP: Lieutenant Governor is seen ...]


JAD: ... the governor of Mississippi, a guy they both went to school with, and who was actually in that fraternity where the kids wore blackface ...


[NEWS CLIP: The photos show members of the fraternity in blackface, some holding up a Confederate flag ...]


JAD: … you had him -- this is at the beginning of the pandemic -- declaring April Confederate History Month. Meanwhile in the legislature, conservative Republicans held -- still hold -- a super-majority. All of which is to say, that the prospects a month and a half ago of anything happening quickly -- or at all -- with the state flag were very, very low. But then everything changes. That's after the break.


JAD: This is Radiolab. I'm Jad Abumrad, here with Shima Oliaee.




JAD: And we're in the middle of a deep dive into the story behind the removal of the Confederate battle flag-clad Mississippi state flag. Now as we talked about, just a month and a half ago you had a situation where despite Laurin Stennis's best efforts to sneak a new flag into the conversation, despite people like John Hawkins taking a stand against the flag, you had a situation where there was a Republican super-majority in the Senate, a governor who had just declared Confederate Heritage Month. It seemed like if things were gonna change, it was gonna happen really slowly and we'd probably be talking about this for another 126 years.


SHIMA: That is until May 25, 2020.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, crowd: No justice, no peace!]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: This is ridiculous! Get off of him!]


[NEWS CLIP: Cities from coast to coast have seen protests of outrage and anger over George Floyd's death.]


SHIMA: In Mississippi, like everywhere, people hit the streets, and the chants ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, crowd: Black lives matter! Black lives matter!]


SHIMA: ... of Black lives matter, morphed seamlessly into ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, crowd: Take it down! Take it down!]


SHIMA: ... take it down.


[NEWS CLIP: Protesters here in Jackson rallied in front of the governor's mansion.]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: Peace is love. The Confederate emblem flying in my state flag.]


[NEWS CLIP: Along with calls for an end to police brutality were citizens calling for changes to our state symbol.]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: Tear it down!]


[NEWS CLIP: Governor Tate Reeves says ...]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Tate Reeves: The people of Mississippi made a decision in 2001, an overwhelming decision to maintain the flag.]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: Black lives matter!]


[NEWS CLIP: He's not planning to take any individual action to take it down.]


SHIMA: Cut to the Mississippi State House of Representatives. Rep. Chris Bell ...


CHRIS BELL: I represent House District 65 in Jackson.


SHIMA: ... was between sessions.


CHRIS BELL: A Republican legislator and I actually passed each other in the hallway on my way to grab some coffee. And she made the statement, "Look, if you guys are working on trying to get this flag removed, I will be able to help out behind the scenes." And I said, "Hey, great." And we started the ball rolling.


SHANDA YATES: It's time for us to do something now.


SHIMA: Soon Chris and seven other legislators, including Shanda Yates ...


SHANDA YATES: Representative, District 64.


SHIMA: Meet in a back room to work up a bill.


SHANDA YATES: We are at a point in the legislature though, where the deadline to introduce general bills was months ago.


SHIMA: The timing of this was such that, in just a few weeks, the entire state capital was all about to go on break for the year.


SHANDA YATES: So for this to happen now, we would have to suspend the rules, which requires a two-thirds vote. Two-thirds of the House of Representatives and two-thirds of the senators have to vote to allow the rules to be suspended.


SHIMA: Mathematically crazy odds.


SHANDA YATES: But I was vocal about it that yeah, I think we are finally starting to see a shift to get this changed.


SHIMA: So the group sets out to whip some votes, but before they're able to gather even a little bit of momentum their plans leak and an article hits the press.


SHANDA YATES: Saying that, "Hey, Representatives are meeting about this and they're gonna try to change the flag." Oh! So the initial media leak was probably untimely.


SHIMA: Immediately there was push back.


SHANDA YATES: And those representatives that live in rural areas started hearing from their constituents.






SHIMA: Hi, Representative Morgan?




SHIMA: This is Representative Ken Morgan, Republican. He represents a rural area in southern Mississippi.


SHIMA: Your constituents, what is their voice?


KEN MORGAN: About 74 percent to leave it like it is. I just stopped at a convenience store on my way home and four people in there told me these very words, "Don't let them change our flag."


SHIMA: Wow! Dang.




CHRIS MCDANIEL: This is Chris.


SHIMA: Hi, Chris this is Shima.


CHRIS MCDANIEL: Hey, how are ya?


SHIMA: I also spoke with Senator Chris McDaniel. He’s been one of the most outspoken critics of changing the flag.


CHRIS MCDANIEL: You know, it's funny. It's not really about a flag to me. It's about a philosophical position. When we're talking about monuments, flags, which of course translates into history, and we have one side of this debate, the left, who have become increasingly intolerant of diverse viewpoints, increasingly intolerant of other people's opinions. From my perspective, the price we pay to live in a free society is to occasionally be offended. Diversity of viewpoints matters. Speech matters, expression matters. Their side of the equation doesn’t share that opinion any longer. They want uniformity. They want doctrinal truth. And they are just as guilty of being so blind to diversity that they basically quell it at every turn. I think this is a fight philosophically for the future of the country. It's not simply about a flag. It's a position, a mental position. And that's why I think a referendum process would be so important. When you have a referendum, the people are forced into a discussion of the issues.


SHIMA: There he expressed the default Republican position: If you want to change the flag, send it to a vote. That’s what we did in 2001 and that’s what we should do now.


SHIMA: Does that mean in the Constitution Committee you think that the bill will be, like, just killed there?


CHRIS MCDANIEL: Oh yeah. It's already dead.


SHIMA: Oh, really?


CHRIS MCDANIEL: I think it's -- I think the bill's already dead.


SHIMA: Turns out just a few days after the bill was introduced, what happened behind the scenes ...






SHIMA: And I learned this from another representative ...


ROBERT JOHNSON: Robert L. Johnson III, Representative of District 94.


SHIMA: ... is that the Lieutenant Governor, Delbert Hosemann, a conservative, did the thing that always happens, the thing that’s been happening in one form or another for 120 years. He diverted the baby flag bill to a hostile committee.


ROBERT JOHNSON: He sent it to a committee that is loaded with ultra conservative Republicans. I mean, at the end of the day, the flag passing or not passing is gonna turn on whether or not Republicans finally wake up and decide this is something we need to do. Can you just hold on a second? I'm picking my mother up.


SHIMA: And just like that, poof.


LAURIN STENNIS: There was one day last week where I was like, "Holy shit, this is gonna happen." And then the very next day I was like, "Fuck, it's over."


SHIMA: Laurin and I spoke on the phone that day. She was unusually bitter.


LAURIN STENNIS: But I think it's going to be kind of a hell to pay situation because white people here have been so fucking horrible for so fucking long.


SHIMA: We talked for a while, as protests raged outside of my window in Brooklyn and hers in Jackson, Mississippi. I told her about something I’d heard in one of my interviews, that maybe the only way the flag will ever come down in Mississippi is if what happened in South Carolina ...


[NEWS CLIP: Top lawmakers there now joining the chorus calling for it to be removed after last week's shootings at that historic Black church.]


SHIMA: ... happens there.


LAURIN STENNIS: I'm horrified at the thought that there's got to be a murder for this. We've had so many. You know, it's just like -- I mean, I don't want somebody to have to -- I mean, this is crazy that we're having this discussion. No! No!


SHIMA: Eight days before the end of the legislative session that's where things stood. Nothing was happening and nothing was gonna happen.


LAURIN STENNIS: Basically what people wanna do is run out the clock.


SHIMA: But then June 18.


[NEWS CLIP: We begin with breaking news.]


[NEWS CLIP: Breaking news.]


[NEWS CLIP: The SEC is considering withholding title games tonight amid the ongoing flag fight in the state.]


SHIMA: Enter the mighty voice of college sports.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: The SEC -- Southeastern Conference -- has made it clear. Unless Mississippi tastes the Confederate flag off of its state flag, there will be no SEC championships taking place on any campus in Mississippi. That is essentially a divestment practice.]


SHIMA: Suddenly, the flag debate was on a whole new level.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: I keep telling people, if you want to affect America, you must deal with money.]


SHIMA: One day later ...


[NEWS CLIP: The NCAA announced it is expanding its Confederate flag policy ...]


SHIMA: The big dog steps in.

[NEWS CLIP: ... banning all championship events from being held in states where the Confederate flag is flown. Mississippi is the only state affected.]


SHIMA: From there, a cascade of businesses threaten to divest in rapid succession. First it was Sanderson Farms. 15,000 employees. Then ...


[NEWS CLIP: Walmart says it will no longer have the Mississippi state flag in its stores.]


SHIMA: ... Walmart. 23,000 employees. Same day ...


[NEWS CLIP: The Mississippi Baptist Convention said something similar.]


SHIMA: The Mississippi Baptist Convention, more than half a million members ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: In light of our understanding of his teaching, Jesus Christ.]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: I am compelled to urge the legislature to change our state flag.]






SHIMA: I hop on the phone with Laurin to review this new progress.


LAURIN STENNIS: There's a statement that I can forward you that our Lieutenant Governor just released.


SHIMA: Here's the thing. I talked to a Senator today who said they're 10 votes away.




SHIMA: She showed me tweets of her flag waving at BLM protests. And then we talked about all the businesses that have just put up her flag in the past few days.


LAURIN STENNIS: Whitney Bank, which is a big presence on the coast is putting up a Stennis banner as soon as it gets back from the printer. And this huge Gothic fabulous -- I think it's the tallest building downtown -- the Lamar Life building in Jackson, they need a 10 by 15 flag. So we had to order it.


SHIMA: Outside of the NBC headquarters, there's a flag of yours.




SHIMA: Did you see that?


LAURIN STENNIS: Will you take a picture of that? No!


SHIMA: Two days to the deadline ...


CHRIS BELL: You had a couple of legislators who have come out on the right side of history.


SHANDA YATES: It's very close right now.


SHIMA: Chris Bell and Shanda Yates tell me that they've inched forward just a little bit.


CHRIS BELL: We're hoping that the momentum will grow over the weekend.




CHRIS MCDANIEL'S VOICEMAIL: Hey, this is Chris. I'm sorry I couldn't answer the phone.


SHIMA: Also tried Senator Chris McDaniel a few times.


CHRIS MCDANIEL'S VOICEMAIL: Just leave a message and I'll get right back to you. The mailbox is full. Goodbye.


[NEWS CLIP: Momentum is building to change Mississippi’s state flag, even as the legislative session winds down.]


[NEWS CLIP: The House Democratic minority leaders say they are about one to two votes away from getting some movement going.]


SHIMA: Around this time, with Team Change still a few votes short and just a few days left to the deadline ...


CHRIS BELL: The Republicans brought out the two flag option.


SHANDA YATES: There's been an idea floated about adopting a second co-equal flag. Keep our current flag and also have a new flag. Kind of separate but equal flags.


CHRIS BELL: That's not even -- that's not up for debate.


SHANDA YATES: It's a weird idea for me to wrap my head around.


SHIMA: On the eve of the deadline, it seemed like things had suddenly stalled. Suddenly, all the senators weren't returning my calls. Meanwhile, Laurin was getting attacked online. A few members of the Mississippi Black Lives Matter movement started publicly saying that the new flag should be designed by a Black person and should not bear the name of a segregationist.


LAURIN STENNIS: Well, I -- I met with some folks who are with Black Lives Matter and it was really helpful to realize in person in dialogue, how much of a roadblock the association, or even just the perceived association with my grandfather was. I mean, you have to kind of realize how hard this is to happen in Mississippi. And it's kind of absurd and crazy, but all the planets were aligning. And then all of a sudden, it became -- my last name became this huge issue and I'm like, "Well, I'm getting the hell out of the way, because this needs to happen."


SHIMA: She ended up posting a statement online.


SHIMA: Can you read it to me?


LAURIN STENNIS: Yes. "Dear friends, Mississippi will soon know all the benefits and joy that come with having a state flag that is evocative, not provocative. Working hard for six years toward that goal has been one of the best experiences of my life. In a continued effort to be of service, I'll be stepping away from this endeavor, as I understand the hurt and potential harm my last name can cause, but I will always continue to fight for Mississippi and her people, which I consider both a duty and a joy. Mississippi needs and deserves a new flag. Help make it so. Laurin."


SHIMA: That's kind of -- that's heartbreaking.


LAURIN STENNIS: No, it's -- it's good. It's all right.


[NEWS CLIP: Breaking this morning, Laurin Stennis the creator of a popular alternative to the state flag says she's stepping away from her endeavor. Her grandfather was U.S. Senator John Stennis, who served Mississippi on Capitol Hill for 41 years. He was also ...]


[SENATE TAPE: House come to order. Please stand as we're led in prayer today by guest minister to be introduced by the lady from Harrison. Remain standing there for the pledge.]


JAD: Saturday June 27, 2020.


[SENATE TAPE: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.]


JAD: State legislators finally meet to vote on the flag.


SHIMA: Minutes before, I got a series of frantic texts from Shanda Yates. "Shima, it’s now." "Looks like it’s not happening." "It’s on." "Honestly have no idea."


[SENATE TAPE: Thank you father for Mississippi.]


JAD: Session begins with a prayer.


[SENATE TAPE: We ask you and beseech you that you would be in their hearts, that what is in their heart will transfer to their mind. That they may do the things that are pleasing unto God for the good of all Mississippians and even our country. Forgive us of our sins we pray. Amen.]


JAD: Then ...


[SENATE TAPE: Pledge, please.]


JAD: ... appropriately enough ...


[SENATE TAPE: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.]


JAD: ... everybody faces a big American flag. Next to it, the 1894 Mississippi state flag -- the Confederate one. And they pledge their allegiance. Maybe for the last time. Maybe not.


[SENATE TAPE: Open the machine, Madame Clerk.]


SHIMA: In the audience, you can see a few Black representatives are wearing masks. One has the words "Take It Down" written on his. And another has the number 846 printed on his.


[SENATE TAPE: House come back to order.]


JAD: After that, speeches.


[SENATE TAPE: I rise before you today in this chamber. The eyes of our state, the nation and indeed the world, are on this House this morning.]


JAD: The tenor of the speeches reminded me of reading John and Abigail Adams's letters. How they would write in this way where they knew that we would be reading their letters hundreds of years later.


[SENATE TAPE: History will be made here today.]


[SENATE TAPE: I will know exactly where I was on this day.]


JAD: There was that same awareness here.


[SENATE TAPE: Woke up this morning like many of you and I watched the news. And on each channel they were talking about the vote on Mississippi's flag. That's on national news. The international news is there too. It is so because of what that flag stands for.]


JAD: You had a few minutes of debate ...


[SENATE TAPE: We want to take the joy away from them.]


JAD: ... where you heard the arguments.


[SENATE TAPE: We as a body want to take that from them.]


[SENATE TAPE: I appreciate your position. That is not the position of this body here today.]


SHIMA: At times, during these debates ...


[SENATE TAPE: And I understand that.]






SHIMA: Things got a little testy.


[SENATE TAPE: And I'm not trying to be argumentative with you.]


[SENATE TAPE: Me either. Me either. Me either.]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Senator Chris McDaniel: I remember watching ...]


SHIMA: Senator Chris McDaniel.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Senator Chris McDaniel: ... the American flag being burned. That really bothered me. I didn't understand why someone would do something like that. The symbol seemed so pure, so innocent. And so I asked my father, I said, "Why are they burning this flag?" And he said, "Well son, it's complicated."]


SHIMA: His closing shot was a story about his dad, how his dad taught him that flags, just like the people they represent, are complicated and we should embrace that, not erase it.


[SENATE TAPE: This is a tough decision. It's a very tough decision. I know it's tough. It's hard. But this is why you're elected to be in these positions.]


JAD: After that ...


[SENATE TAPE: So now Senator, we have a motion. Can you do the morning roll call?]


JAD: The moment of truth.


[SENATE TAPE: Motion to use the morning roll call. Does anyone object to the procedure?]


JAD: Now to be honest, there are actually two votes: one in the House and the Senate. We're gonna focus in on the Senate. That's what you're hearing because that's the vote that really counts.


[SENATE TAPE: Roll call. Is that what your motion is?]


JAD: If you recall, they needed a two-thirds majority to suspend the rules in order to move forward. If they get that majority, it's effectively a vote to change the flag. Which means they need 35 out of 52 votes.


[SENATE TAPE: Mr. Clerk.]


[SENATE TAPE: Barnett, Blackmon, Blackwell, Blount, Boyd, Branning, Bryan, Butler, Carter ...]


SHIMA: The clerk calls the 50 senators one by one. They do a voice vote.


[SENATE TAPE: Simmons of the 12th. Simmons of the 13th. Sojourner. Sparks.]


SHIMA: Then he reads the tally. First the yeas.


[SENATE TAPE: Voting ‘yes’ or ‘yea.’ Barnett, Blackman, Blackwell, Blount, Boyd, Bryan, Butler, Carter, DeBar, DeLano, Doty, England, Frazier, Harkins, Hopson, Horhn, Jackson of the 15th, Jackson of the 11th, Jackson of the 32nd ...]


SHIMA: Then the nays.


[SENATE TAPE: Voting ‘no’ or ‘nay.’ Branning, Caughman, Chassaniol, Chism, Fillingane, Hill, Johnson, McCaughn, McDaniel, McLendon, Seymour, Sojourner, Sparks, Suber and Whaley.]


JAD: Then there is a two minute silence where it seems like there are some recounts. Again, they need to get to 35 out of 52 votes. Watching this on the stream at this point, I'm thinking if there are these recounts that probably means they don't have it.

[SENATE TAPE: By a vote of 36 to 14, the motion passes.]




[SENATE TAPE: Mr. President, I ask for immediate release.]


[SENATE TAPE: Seeing no objection, immediate release is granted.]


JAD: For 126 years, the Mississippi state flag had the Confederate flag on it. But no longer.


SHIMA: Just watched it.




SHIMA: Shanda Yates.


SHANDA YATES: The old flag is gone.


ROBERT JOHNSON: All the hard work has paid off.


SHIMA: Robert Johnson.


ROBERT JOHNSON: The people get to see Mississippi for who they really are.


CHRIS BELL: It was a victory for all of us.


SHIMA: Chris Bell.


CHRIS BELL: Mississippi is ready to enter the global market.


KEN MORGAN: Hell, what can you say? I voted not to change it. I mean ...


SHIMA: Ken Morgan.


KEN MORGAN: That's all I can do.


SHIMA: Oh my gosh. Did you watch?


JOHN HAWKINS: I did. I saw it.


SHIMA: And John Hawkins, where it all began.


JOHN HAWKINS: I was watching it with my son, my 18 year old son who's headed to the University of Kentucky in the fall. But I'm not sure he fully understood the gravity of the moment.


SHIMA: John has hinted to us that he might now finally move back to Mississippi, and perhaps politics will be in his future.


JAD: Now as for how they got the vote, because remember they came into the day a few votes shy. Turns out the thing that pushed them over the edge was quite literally God. At the very last minute, a few Republicans agreed to vote to remove the old flag only if the new flag had the words "In God We Trust" on it.


SHIMA: Do you know where that came from?


ROBERT JOHNSON: Well -- well, we still live in a conservative state and part of -- part of what it took to get people to cross that line of voting to take the Confederate flag down is to give them some alternative that they could go sell to the traditionalists out there and they want that on their flag.


JAD: Seeing the way it all played out, was that bittersweet from your perspective?


LAURIN STENNIS: I think that’s a good way to put it. Yeah. Yeah. But you know, wow! We got -- we got the current flag down, the 1894 flag down. And so have been celebrating that for sure.


JAD: A few days later, Governor Tate Reeves, he of the blackface battle flag-loving fraternity, signed the bill into law.


[NEWS CLIP: It is an amazing, historical moment to be witnessing this: the last time the Mississippi state flag raised at the Mississippi state capitol now lowered, never to be raised again.]


SHIMA: And then all 1894 flags were officially removed from all State buildings.


LAURIN STENNIS: But you know, in true fashion we've made the replacement the most complicated procedure ever.


JAD: Yeah.


[NEWS CLIP: Of course the process now as they do this, they now -- they soon -- the nine-member commission who will be tasked with the process of finding a flag design.]


JAD: For the moment Mississippi, which used to be the only state in the union with the Confederate battle flag on it is now the only state in the union without a flag at all.


KIESE LAYMON: And I just think it's amazing that -- that Mississippians did something radical. It's radical to be a state without a flag. You know what I'm saying? Like, that's -- that's not like -- it's radical to be like, "You know what? We don't have a fucking flag right now, so we're gonna have to build some shit together." This is the beginning. This ain't the end. But right now, I'm not gonna think about that. Right now I'm just gonna be happy. I'm gonna be really happy for this weekend. That's something I never thought I would see happen. Something my granny never thought would see happen, you know? So it's not the end, but it's a victory. And I think going forward, like, my utopia would be like that Laurin and a lot of other brilliant, thoughtful, loving people were central to the design of the new flag. Like, you know, how do we share and do right by the best of Mississippi? The best of Mississippi.


JAD: Two quick postscripts. From what we understand, orders of the Confederate flag have apparently shot through the roof in Mississippi. And second, just this week in the wake of the flag proceedings we learned that 26 legislators have tested positive for COVID. This episode was brought to you through a collaboration between OSM Audio and Radiolab. It was produced and reported by Shima Oliaee with production assistance from Annie McEwen and Bethel Habte. Thanks also to Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy, a great memoir. Definitely recommend. To Tad Davis, Ray Hawkins, Rory Doyle, Katie McKee, Adam Gunshow, Kayleigh Skinner, Giacomo Bologna, Luke Ramseth and Sarah Fowler. I'm Jad Abumrad. Thanks for listening.


[EDDIE: This is Eddie calling from Hobart, Australia. Radiolab is created by Jad Abumrad with Robert Krulwich, and produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our Executive Producer. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters, and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee, W. Harry Fortuna, Sarah Sandbach, Malissa O'Donnell, Tad Davis and Russell Gragg. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.]


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