Lawmakers have seen increasing pressure to change the flag amid a nationwide reckoning with systematic racism
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Mississippi has officially retired the last state flag in the US with the Confederate battle emblem, a racist symbol that has served as a source of division for generations.
Republican governor Tate Reeves signed a historic bill withdrawing the state’s 126-year-old flag on Tuesday.
“This is not a political moment to me but a solemn occasion to lead our Mississippi family to come together, to be reconciled, and to move on,” Reeves said in a statement. “We are a resilient people defined by our hospitality. We are a people of great faith. Now, more than ever, we must lean on that faith, put our divisions behind us, and unite for a greater good.”
Mississippi lawmakers have faced increasing pressure to change the flag, which features the Confederate battle emblem – a red field topped by a blue X with 13 white stars, amid a nationwide reckoning with systematic racism.
On Sunday a coalition of legislators passed a bill removing the state’s flag, and calling for a commission to design a new one, which voters will be asked to approve in the 3 November election.
The move capped days of emotional debate and decades of effort by Black lawmakers and others to remove the rebel emblem, arguing it cannot represent a state where 38% of the population is Black. White supremacist lawmakers placed the symbol on the Mississippi flag in 1894, – thirty years after the civil war.
Mississippi voters chose to keep the flag in a 2001 statewide election, with supporters saying they saw it as a symbol of southern heritage. But since then, a growing number of cities and all the state’s public universities have abandoned it.
In 2015, the state’s Republican House speaker Philip Gunn endorsed the idea of changing the state flag after a white supremacist massacred nine Black parishioners in Charleston. After it was revealed that the gunman’s manifesto contained images of the Confederate battle flag, South Carolina took down the one that was displayed on statehouse grounds.
Still, the issue was broadly considered too volatile for legislators in Mississippi to touch until the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis set off weeks of sustained protests against racial injustice, followed by calls to take down Confederate symbols.
A groundswell of young activists, college athletes and leaders from business, religion, education and sports called on Mississippi to make this change, finally providing the momentum for legislators to vote. Before the governor signed the bill Tuesday, state employees raised and lowered several of the flags on a pole outside the Capitol.
The idea faced resistance up until the end. Republican state senator Chris McDaniel said changing the flag was a challenge to the founding values of the country, and warned that the American flag would be next.
Democratic representative Edward Blackmon Jr, who is Black, argued that the state flag, “ought to be something that we all feel a sense of pride that when we see it, we know that that’s about us. Not just some of us.”
Reeves said on Tuesday: “The people of Mississippi, Black and white, and young and old, can be proud of a banner that puts our faith front and center. We can unite under it. We can move forward together.”