by Emily Wagster Pettus, Associated Press

A Mississippi lawmaker who was a longtime leader in working to remove a Confederate symbol from the state flag said Monday she is stepping down to take a job with an advocacy group.

District 119 Democratic Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes of Gulfport and Pass Christian High School Alum said her last day in the state House will be Sunday. The next day, she will begin work as Mississippi policy director for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Williams-Barnes, 53, said the center supports many of the issues she has supported in office, including protection of voting rights and public education. She was first elected in November 2011 and took office in January 2012.

“All of the things I have been passionate about as a legislator, I will be able to continue to do,” she told The Associated Press.

Williams-Barnes said her most rewarding times as a legislator included restoring voting rights for people who had lost them because of disenfranchising crimes. Under Mississippi law, legislators must vote to restore those rights person by person. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves recently vetoed a bill that would have allowed automatic restoration of voting rights for people whose crimes are expunged.

Williams-Barnes said she is grateful to her constituents in coastal Harrison County.

“I am not leaving them,” she said. “I am choosing another path to continue my service to those in my district as well as throughout the state of Mississippi.”

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves will set a special election to fill the rest of the term, which ends in January 2024.

Williams-Barnes said she qualified to run for the House a week after the sudden death of her mother, the Rev. RoseMary Hayes-Williams. Williams-Barnes, who is vice president of her family-run funeral home, said her mother had encouraged her to run.

The District 119 Representative has been an advocate of equal pay for equal work by women and men. She was a sponsor of the “Dignity for Incarcerated Women” bill Reeves signed into law in 2021. Among other things, the law bans the use of restraints on women giving birth in prisons or jails.

Williams-Barnes was chairwoman of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus from 2014 to 2017. She led several other Black lawmakers in boycotting the Southern Legislative Conference meeting on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2017 to bring pressure on Mississippi to change the flag that prominently featured the Confederate battle emblem.

Mississippi lawmakers voted to retire the old flag in the summer of 2020, as protests were happening in the state and nation over racial injustice after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“Knowing I was able to make a major play in changing of our state flag probably was one of those times I would say my beloved mother looked down and said, ‘That’s my girl,’” Williams-Barnes said Monday.

(Contributed by The Gazebo Gazette)