Mississippi legislators have voted to replace the state flag, the last in the nation to feature the Confederate battle emblem, which has been condemned as racist.
The state House and the Senate voted to remove the current flag on Sunday and create a commission that will design a new flag that cannot include the Confederate symbol and that must have the words “In God We Trust”. Mississippi governor Tate Reeves has signaled he will sign the measure in the coming days.
The flag’s supporters have resisted efforts to change it for decades, but rapid developments in recent weeks have changed dynamics on this issue in the state, which has a long history of systemic racism and saw more lynchings of African Americans than any other state in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
As protests against racial injustice recently spread across the US, including Mississippi, leaders from business, religion, education, and sports have spoken forcefully against the state flag. They have urged legislators to ditch the 126-year-old banner for one that better reflects the diversity of a state with a 38% Black population.
The state House and Senate met Saturday and took a big step: by two-thirds margins, they suspended legislative deadlines so a flag bill could be filed. Spectators cheered as each chamber voted, and legislators seeking the change embraced each other.
“There are economic issues. There are issues involving football or whatever,” said Delbert Hosemann, Republican lieutenant governor, on Saturday. “But this vote came from the heart. That makes it so much more important.”
David Jordan, a Democratic senator who is African American, has pushed for decades to change the flag. He smiled broadly after Saturday’s vote and said, “This is such a metamorphosis.”
On Sunday, the House passed the bill to change the flag with a vote of 91-23. The Senate followed that vote by approving the bill 37-14. The bill stipulates the current flag must be removed within 15 days of the vote.
Mississippi has the last state flag with the Confederate battle emblem – a red field topped by a blue X with 13 white stars. The flag has been divisive for generations. All of the state’s public universities have stopped flying it, as have a growing number of cities and counties.
White supremacists in the Mississippi legislature set the state flag design in 1894 during backlash to the political power that African Americans gained after the civil war.
In 2000, the Mississippi supreme court ruled that the flag lacked official status. State laws were updated in 1906, and portions dealing with the flag were not carried forward. Legislators set a flag election in 2001, and voters kept the rebel-themed design.
Former Ole Miss basketball player Blake Hinson told his hometown Daytona Beach (Florida) News-Journal that the Mississippi flag played a part in his decision to transfer to Iowa State.
“It was time to go and leave Ole Miss,” Hinson said. “I’m proud not to represent that flag anymore and to not be associated with anything representing the Confederacy.”
Reeves said Saturday for the first time that he would sign a bill to change the flag if the Republican-controlled legislature sends him one.
Reeves and many other politicians have said people should get to vote on a flag design in another statewide election. The new design – without the Confederate symbol – will be put on the ballot 3 November, but it will be the only choice.
If a majority voting that day accept the new design, it will become the state flag. If a majority rejects it, the commission will design a new flag using the same guidelines.
“I understand many view the current flag as a symbol of heritage and southern pride,” tweeted the country music star Faith Hill, a Mississippi native, “but we have to realize that this flag is a direct symbol of terror for our black brothers and sisters.”