The Southern Legislative Conference (SLC), currently being held on the Mississippi Coast, was intended to begin with an opening reception Saturday delivering the festive sounds of laughter, good conversation, music and good food.
However, it became disrupted with the sounds nearby of protest chants, battle songs and demands to remove the Mississippi state flag and its Confederate emblem.
Mississippi Rising Coalition brought over 50 activists Saturday evening, calling for the group of legislators to use their political power to remove the Confederate emblem from the state flag.
“We are gathered here today to be truth tellers to our fellow citizens and say no more to the symbol hanging in our city halls, courthouses, police stations and our schools,” said Lea Campbell, founder and president of Mississippi Rising Coalition, a local advocacy organization.
The group had originally planned to march around the Mississippi Coast Coliseum, where most of the conference will be held, but switched to the main pavilion at Gulfport’s Jones Park, where the opening reception was being held.
“Say no more to their glorified, romanticized and whitewashed version of Confederate heritage,” Campbell said. “Tell the whole truth and stand for justice.”
SLC is expecting about 1,300 legislators to attend the conference, representing 15 southern states. It serves as a forum to discuss regional and national policy and is currently chaired by Philip Gunn, Mississippi speaker of the House of Representatives.
“The Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus refuses to turn its back on the millions of people who are forced to live and function under the oppressive symbol of our state flag,” said chairwoman and Gulfport state Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes.
She has previously told the Associated Press, “What we’re really wanting is a flag that charts a different future for our state, that charts a different future for our children and that is about a vision that unites people in the state with each other as well as unites Mississippi with other states in the nation.”
The Mississippi State Conference NAACP endorsed MLBC’s actions.
“This demonstration is not one of black against white; it’s a demonstration of right against wrong,” said Curley Clark, Jackson County NAACP president and a vice president with the state conference. “We stand together against this racist flag.”
Attendees at the reception declined to comment with many of the out-of-state members stating they did not know about the issue. Two legislators gave their thoughts back at the Coliseum during registration.
“If it’s such a major issue for the flag to change, why doesn’t Phillip Gunn change it? It hasn’t even come out of a committee,” said State Rep. Steve Holland (D-Tupelo), who was involved in the referendum in 2001, where changing the flag was defeated. “I would be glad to vote on it on the floor of the house.”
Holland however said he would rather focus on other issues.
“I’m interested in good public schools, good roads, everybody having an equal opportunity in this state. I am for funding our college system and our community college system,” he said. “Those are the important issues to me.”
Georgia Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-37) said: “It’s a state issue for Mississippi to deal with. My great grandfather father fought in the Confederacy, but he didn’t have any slaves. But people will have to figure out where they are on that issue. My forebearers fought in the war; their fight was not over slavery, it was because Georgia had seceeded from the Union.”
James Skinner, a Mississippi Rising Coalition board member, touched on the historical relevance of the issue, speaking at the protest.
“There is not one credible historian at any of the eight major universities in this state that would say that emblem is anything other than a symbol of white supremacy and fascism,” Skinner said.
Mark Isaacs followed: “When there is no place for hate in our state, we must take down the flag of 1894. It’s time! We have a flag that says the opposite for at least 38 percent of our residents.”
The Southern Legislative Conference continues through Aug. 2.