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Mississippi Lawmakers To Remove Confederate Emblem From State Flag


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Eighty-five yeas and 34 nays - resolution passes.



The last state flag with the Confederate battle emblem is coming down. Yesterday, Mississippi State lawmakers cleared the way to begin the process of removing the 126-year-old flag that many see as a symbol of hate and oppression. And Republican Governor Tate Reeves said, for the first time, he would sign such a bill. Joining us is Mississippi's House minority leader, Democrat Robert Johnson.

Good morning.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: How are you feeling?

JOHNSON: I'm feeling great. I had a pretty exciting night last night...


JOHNSON: ...Probably a little precelebration. We will put the rubber stamp on it by passing a bill today. But we're pretty excited. It's kind of a surreal moment, but it's great.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I mean, you are a Black man born in Mississippi. Tell me what this means to you. Growing up, what did that flag represent? And now seeing it changed, how is that going to change things for you?

JOHNSON: Well, you know, you - even though it's obvious, I'm glad you acknowledged that I was a Black man growing up in Mississippi. And it seems - let me put it in this perspective. It almost seems silly in the Black community that we were even having this discussion. I mean, why would you ask me to have to vote to take down something that we know is almost, you know, arguably illegal? Why do we even have it?

I grew up in a time - I'm 61 years old. I was born in 1958. So I grew up during the civil rights movement. I walked and marched as a child with my parents in protest. And what that flag represents to me - when we saw - what we were told when we see that flag, that means that's somebody that may hurt you, may set your church on fire, may set your house on fire, may kill you - or may have killed somebody you know. That's what it represents whenever we see that.

And so it represented when I grew up when I walked in a building in a dentist's office, there was a colored side - literally. I'm only 61. I can remember going to the dentist - a colored side and a white side. That flag hung in offices like that - not as a state flag but as a Confederate battle flag. And to have that on our state flag and to work and serve under that - to try to prosper and raise children under that in a state that - I'm here because I want to be. I'm here because I love this state. A lot of us had opportunities to leave, left and came back. But to do that almost seems ridiculous. And to get it done feels cleansing, feels powerful to me. And so that is a great day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why do you think the change was possible this time?

JOHNSON: Money - money. The climate in the country that was sparked by recent events across the nation said to all of America that race relations in this state - we can take the cover off of it. It is not what it needs to be. We have a serious race problem in this state - how we understand each other, how we perceive each other. And right in the front door of this country, a glaring symbol of that stands in the state of Mississippi.

And people who do business with the state, sports teams, colleges and universities saying hey, we can't be a party to that. We can't be involved in that kind of - we can't rubber-stamp or endorse a system like that. We're pulling out. You know, we may end up losing business. We may not - we certainly won't get any new business, no new jobs.

And when student athletes start talking about quitting the team - you know, a football industry, a college football industry at the SEC where two schools in the state of Mississippi make millions, tens of millions of dollars every year on the backs of African American athletes. And those athletes start saying, we may not play - all of a sudden, people get clarity. And that's why we changed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mississippi's House minority leader, Robert Johnson.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.