Some things changed, and some stayed the same, in the 2020 election in Mississippi. The people of the state voted to keep their incumbent senator and all four incumbent congressional representatives, but they also decided it was time to make two significant changes to address systemic racist issues head-on. And their votes on these changes were not narrow or close. On both, the people of Mississippi made a bold statement about where they stood.
After 126 years, Mississippi will be flying a new state flag that no longer incorporates the Confederate battle flag within it. Instead, the new flag, which was approved by a yes/no vote of 72 percent to 28 percent, sports a magnolia blossom in the center, “a symbol long-used to represent our state and the hospitality of our citizens,” according to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. The flag also features 20 stars (Mississippi was the 20th state admitted to the US), the words “In God We Trust,” and a solitary gold five-point star that represents the Native peoples who lived on the land that became the state of Mississippi.
The design “represents Mississippi’s sense of hope and rebirth, as the Magnolia often blooms more than once and has a long blooming season,” the Department of Archives and History said in a statement.
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This was not the first attempt at replacing the Confederate-linked flag. In 2001, the vote was to keep that flag. But pressure came from racial justice campaigns throughout 2020, including a call from the NCAA’s Southeastern Conference, which warned it might prohibit championship games in Mississippi if the racist symbol were not removed. Sports, it seems, are highly motivating when it comes to moving such issues forward.
But flags were not the only change Mississippi voters approved in this election. They also did away with a remnant of the Jim Crow era in their constitution that was a holdover from the Reconstruction period. The constitution required a statewide candidate (governor and other officers) to win a majority of the popular vote and a majority of the electoral vote. Whoever gets the most votes in each of the 122 state House districts gets one electoral vote. But if no one wins both the popular vote and the electoral vote, the House then decides the race. The kicker here is that the representatives do not have to vote as their districts did. This separate House vote, created during Reconstruction, allowed the white ruling class to have the final say in who holds office.
Black plaintiffs sued the state over this process. Its constitutionality was questioned in 2019 by US District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III. He based his concerns on a violation of “one person, one vote.” And in 2020, in the November election, Mississippi voters approved a ballot measure by a yes/no vote of 78 percent to 22 percent to change the way statewide positions are elected. The voters of Mississippi have spoken. Now, candidates for governor, or any other statewide office in Mississippi, must receive a majority of the votes in the general election to win. If no candidate receives a majority, a runoff election will be held to determine the winner.
Was history made, or changed, in Mississippi in the 2020 election? Did the people in the state determine it was finally time to address some longstanding issues of systemic racism that had been a part of their state for years? Or was this a case of their feet being held to the fire, with the chance of not having basketball championships or facing federal lawsuits for violating voting rights of Black Mississippians imminent? Either way, egregious wrongs were righted, and not by small margins. That looks like a win. Wins like that are always good.—Carole Levine