The Mississippi Legislature voted Sunday to redesign the state flag, whose rebel battle star was the final remaining symbol of the Confederacy on a state’s flag.
Republican Gov. Tate Reeves had announced Saturday he would sign the bill, which means Mississippi will now form a committee to approve a new flag, the design of which must include the words “in God We Trust” and will be put before voters in November.
The historic moment came after a tumultuous weekend in Jackson that saw spectators in the Capitol erupt in applause while demonstrators thronged outdoors.
“This is the result of decades of work and sacrifice by Mississippians committed to human rights, equality, reparation and dismantling the institutions of White supremacy,” said Lea Campbell, the founder of the Mississippi Rising Coalition.
Since 2001, when voters decisively approved the flag in a referendum, the line taken by many Mississippi lawmakers was that only another statewide vote could change it. That did not deter the flag’s opponents, however, and when George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody on Memorial Day the push was revived.
Churches and activist groups stepped up the pressure in June, holding rallies on the Capitol steps and furiously lobbying the Republican majority in the Legislature.
The two-thirds supermajority required to suspend legislative deadlines and move the bill to debate passed Saturday to raucous applause as Mississippi lawmakers said the eyes of the nation were upon them.
The state’s Black senators delivered passionate messages urging their colleagues to reject the current flag and vote for a new one.
“I stand in the name of history,” said state Sen. Derrick Simmons, citing his family tree’s deep roots in Mississippi and said his sons, age 1 and 6, should not have to be educated, live and work beneath a Confederate symbol.
“Mississippi needs a symbol of love, not hate,” he said. “A symbol of unity, not division. A symbol for all Mississippians, not some. Let’s vote today for the Mississippi of tomorrow.”
The House voted 91-23 at 3:25 p.m. local time to approve the flag change and sent it to the Senate. After a lengthy recess and discussion, the bill went before the upper chamber, which passed it on a 37-14 vote at 6 p.m. on the dot to sustained applause.
“Considering this legislation is about 126 years overdue, yeah — the state of Mississippi is good at wasting time,” Mississippi Rising’s Melissa Garriga joked during the Senate’s long process.
The project now goes to the nine-member flag committee, whose members must be named by July 15 by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the state House. That panel must present its choice for a new flag on Sept. 14, and that design will be put to a yes-or-no vote in November. The Legislature must then vote to approve the new flag in January 2021.
The only certain thing now is that the Mississippi state flag “shall not include the battle flag of the Confederacy and shall include the words ‘in God We Trust,’” as lawmakers solemnly read out Sunday.
The possibility remains that should the flag proposed in November not get a majority vote, or the Legislature may not ratify that approval in January, which would leave Mississippi in a kind of limbo vis-a-vis having an official flag. Nevertheless, the current flag’s opponents rejoiced at winning the main point: ridding the state of a reminder it once fought on behalf of a government dedicated to slavery.
“Mississippi can finally have a flag for all Mississippians that does not include a remnant of the Old South,” said Sharon Brown with Flag for All MS, a group that formed in 2015.
Ms. Brown and Ms. Campbell were among those on hand in the legislative galleries Sunday.
The movement to change the flag also gained the support of the head football coaches at the state’s three largest universities, who also traveled to Jackson to lobby the Legislature. However, the house tabled a motion Sunday to name the bill after Kylin Hill, a running back at Mississippi State whose opposition to the current flag made him a recent sensation on social media.
Republican state Sen. W. Briggs Hopson of Vicksburg used football imagery Sunday while urging his colleagues to back HB1796.
“The legislature has punted on this for too long,” he said. “We’re at the 1-yard line now and we need to push this ball across the goal line. Let’s stand up and move this state in a different direction.”
Mr. Hopson said Mississippi had “a duty to the republic” to make a change on the flag which has divided the state to varying degrees since it became the official banner when it was adopted in 1894.
There was some discussion in the Senate about whether the words “in God we trust” would prove divisive, too. Mr. Hopson said at least 40% of Mississippians are offended by the current flag and that any flag was likely to have opponents, and he and other lawmakers insisted the world would condemn Mississippi if it failed to act.
Mississippi’s population includes the highest percentage of Black Americans — 37.3% — of any state in the union, according to the 2010 census.
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