Rep. Jeramey Anderson represents Mississippi’s 110th House District in the Mississippi Legislature. When he was sworn in at age 22 in 2013, Anderson became the youngest black candidate ever elected to a legislature in the United States. In the years since, he’s seen multiple efforts to remove the Confederate emblem from the Mississippi state flag flounder. This weekend, the legislature finally voted to remove the flag, and on Tuesday, Gov. Tate Reeves (R) signed the bill that mandates the removal of the state flag and bans use of the Confederate emblem in the future. Rolling Stone spoke with Anderson about how the effort to remove the Confederate emblem finally prevailed and what it means for the future of Mississippi.
What has this moment meant for you, personally?
I’ve always wanted to put our state flag somewhere in my office or in my house, and I can’t — or, I can, but I won’t because the symbol that is embedded on our flag is the symbol of oppression. It’s a symbol of support for a group of people who felt that people that look like me were less than. People that look like me, they would prefer to have them shackled and chained to each other. That is what I see when I look at that.
You’ve said that, as a black man, “It’s all but impossible to have a simple, unguarded moment.” I was struck by that, and I was hoping you might elaborate on it a little bit.
Every single day, as a black Mississippian, when I walk out — although I don’t endure those same struggles that my ancestors went through, or people went through 60, 70 years ago — we still face battles and struggles.
I had to take a step back myself and look at the way I move through my own community. That particular statement, I was running and I noticed I was trying to make myself appear friendly, so that I don’t intimidate anybody, if that makes sense. As a black person, it is natural for you to feel intimidated by me just because of my skin color. That’s what prompted me to make that statement. Even as a lawmaker — I go far beyond to make sure that I appear to be less threatening, even though I don’t feel like I am threatening. But I go that extra mile to make sure, and that is a struggle I don’t think my white counterparts have to even worry about. Those are the scenarios that play in my head when I look at our state flag and when I think about the oppression that our flag represents.
Can you walk me through how this vote in the legislature came together?
It has, as I’m sure you’re aware, been on folks’ mind for quite some time. The legislature decided this was the time to actually act on it. There have been significant strides in the past to remove the state flag and create one that better unifies the state and its people. Leading up to the vote, there was significant effort from multiple organizations, legislative leaders, city leaders and young activists around the state. There were a lot of conversations, not only inside the Capitol, but around the state, which I think is what influenced the legislative leadership to act now. I’m just excited that they were able to take that first step of many steps toward unifying the state.
I know there were efforts in 2015, 2016, 2001 to get this done, but none ever got any traction. Why were things different this time?
I think the pulse of the legislature at the time that those bills were filed just wasn’t where it is in right now. And what I mean by that is: It takes a lot of courage for some of my colleagues to vote in favor of removing the state flag — for multiple reasons. For me, as an African-American lawmaker in the state legislature — for so many people in my district, in my family, hundreds of thousands of Mississippians around the state — it is that it is a very easy choice. But I know that there is another side to that. Other lawmakers — their constituency is a bit tougher. But the pressure around the state currently and around the country, caused a lot of lawmakers to really step back and take a look at their stance. And I like to believe that a lot of lawmakers had a change of heart. I say that because, while we know there were some outside pressures that definitely pushed several lawmakers to make the right decision, I would like to believe that a lot of their hearts changed because where there is a change of heart, there is a change of mind — and where there is a change of mind, you can truly start to make progress across this state.
You say that this was a tough decision for some of your colleagues. What conversations have you had with them in the past that makes you say that?
A lot of my colleagues argue “the heritage defense” — that it is a part of the heritage of the people in the state of Mississippi. Even today, after the votes have been cast, I got emails and social media messages and things saying this is erasing history. And that’s not at all what this is about. I am not trying to erase history. I think we learn from our history in order to be better in the future, so we don’t repeat those mistakes. As a state, we don’t need to have symbols that promote violence within our state. That is a symbol of hate and oppression. We have about 38, 39 percent African American population.
You mention outside pressure this time around that changed the calculation for some people. What do you mean by that?
What we are experiencing here in Mississippi is not, in my opinion, unique to the state of Mississippi. But there were several entities, several organizations and celebrities that were calling for a boycott in response to the state legislature failing to act on this issue for so long.
And I always give credit to the people on the ground. There were several young people on the ground here in Mississippi. There were several municipal mayors. There were several county officials that really took a stand on this issue, university presidents that took a stand on this issue and said ‘enough is enough, now is the time to make a change.’ And that is one of the reasons why we are in this historical moment.
I have colleagues in the senate that have been pushing on this issue for decades. While we give credit to our legislative leaders and our lawmakers for pressing the button to vote “yes” in favor of the movement, we would not be in this very moment that we find ourselves in right now without the sacrifice and the hard work of those who pushed this issue for decades, those who took to the streets over the last couple of months to say enough is enough, and we need change now.
Who were the key figures who pushed on this? Are there people that you would want to call out specifically who had an impact?
I don’t. I’m going to forget somebody. But of course the college presidents. If I’m not mistaken, every single one of our major universities no longer fly the state flag, even prior to this past weekend. I’m from the coast, and there is only three or four cities that still fly the state flag. There were a bunch of business entities that refused to fly the state flag. The vote was historical, but how it got there was, in my opinion, way more historical.
You mention cities, universities, business entities. I know there were also several sports organizations that threatened to boycott — the SEC and the NCAA said they would ban championships from taking place in Mississippi until the flag is changed. Did those announcements make a difference in your mind?
Absolutely. And that’s something that we did not see in the previous years of discussion is the enormous amount of pressure that was put on the state by those outside and those inside. And so when you talk about the athletic organizations, Ix think they played a major role in helping to get this over the finish line, so to speak.
But I’m always cautious to give credit to a specific group of people. I think we’ve got right up to the finish line thanks to the community effort, the activist effort, the effort of lawmakers who have been here for quite some time, those who marched and protested — they got us to right up to the finish line and some of these athletic organizations just kind of gave a little nudge. It’s just an enormous amount of effort on multiple sides of an issue from both Republicans, Democrats, independents, libertarians, white, black, female, male — it was just a unified effort. And I think that speaks volumes.
You’ve introduced several police reform bills in the past, including one that would automatically send any officer-involved shootings to the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations.
There’s been support around the state for that bill — multiple D.A.s around the state. It removes the political pressure out of the area in which it happens and creates a more efficient and more transparent process. Obviously, we know what’s going on around the country with law enforcement officers and the community’s distrust for them. And so in order to be a little bit more proactive here, the state of Mississippi. The way I see that measure is not. And I believe it is just to make sure that we are making no doubt within Mississippians minds when something like this happens, that the state is doing everything it can do, one way or the other.
As was the case with the motion to change the state flag, you’ve introduced these bills several times. Does this most recent vote with the flag signal to you that your colleagues’ minds might be changing? Do you feel they might be more open to conversations about police reform at this moment?
I definitely believe so. I heard lawmakers, several times over the weekend say, you know, we understand that this is not by any means a cure-all solution for the racial tension and the lack of equality around the state, we understand that we’re open to exploring opportunities to address those issues. So, outside of police reform, let’s just talk about voting and election reform, let’s talk about criminal justice reform. Let’s talk about economic opportunity, and upward mobility. We’ll talk about equity in education. All of those issues are issues that need to be addressed within the state of Mississippi as it relates to minority communities. So the flag, although a significant win — not only for African-Americans or black Mississippians, but for the entire state as well — it’s just the first step.