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Mississippi House and Senate vote to remove Confederate icon from state flag

Mississippi lawmakers voted on June 28 to replace the state flag, the last in the nation to feature the Confederate battle emblem. (Video: Mississippi Legislature/YouTube)

The last state flag in the nation to prominently feature the Confederate battle emblem is poised to come down across Mississippi, after state lawmakers voted Sunday to replace the 126-year-old design.

Amid a national reckoning over racial injustice, the state House, and then the Senate, approved the measure to loud applause. By late Sunday, the bill was headed to Gov. Tate Reeves (R), who indicated previously that he would sign it. With his approval, the flag must be removed from government buildings within 15 days through a process that is “prompt, dignified and respectful.”

The flag’s retirement gained legislative approval late in the afternoon, by margins of 91 to 23 in the House and 37 to 14 in the Senate, after senators tabled an amendment that would have left the decision with voters via a referendum. Before voting, lawmakers lined up to offer impassioned speeches both for and against replacing the flag, which has weathered previous criticism and removal attempts.

“In the name of history, I stand for my two sons who are 1 and 6 years old,” said Sen. Derrick Simmons (D), who is black. “Who should be educated in schools, be able to frequent businesses and express their black voices in public spaces that all fly a symbol of love, not hate. A symbol of unity, not division. A symbol that represents all Mississippians, not some.”

Sen. Chris McDaniel (R), one of the most vocal opponents of changing the flag, argued that doing so could lead to a slippery slope, saying attempts are being made nationally to challenge the nation’s founding and history. He made a final plea for voters to be allowed to choose.

“After all,” he said, “it’s their state, not ours.”

But in a state that is nearly 40 percent black, the flag’s Confederate iconography has long been divisive. Adopted in 1894, nearly 30 years after the end of the Civil War, it features the Confederate emblem — 13 white stars atop a blue X with a red background — in the upper-left corner.

Although it has increasingly come to be viewed as a symbol of oppression, the flag still draws passionate defenders who consider it part of their heritage. Lawmakers who did not support abandoning the current design said their constituents had voiced passionate and emotional opinions in favor of keeping it.

“When we remove our history or set our history aside, then we lose the opportunity to educate and inform and to have a conversation about what the true meaning of things are,” said Sen. Melanie Sojourner (R), adding that “if we remove things, we don’t have the opportunity to have the conversations.”

Before this month, the flag faced its most serious challenge in 2001, when a referendum offered voters a choice of whether to replace it. They voted 2 to 1 to keep it. That same year, the only other state whose flag bore the Confederate battle emblem, Georgia, changed it after a legislative showdown.

Over the years, various bills to retire Mississippi’s flag have not achieved any real momentum. But after widespread protests of racial injustice focused renewed attention on symbols of the Confederacy, state officials had faced mounting pressure.

In the past few weeks, businesses, universities and faith leaders demanded its replacement. Influential institutions, including the Southern Baptist Convention, joined those calls. University coaches and athletes came to the capital to urge lawmakers to act. Walmart stopped flying the flag at its stores, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced a ban on holding championship events in states where the Confederate symbol “has a prominent presence” — a measure that applied only to Mississippi. The Southeastern Conference said it too would consider such a move.

Legislators began to come out in favor of changing the flag, with some citing fear that the state would lose out on job creation and economic development if it clung to the Confederate symbol.

“I know what that flag represents for a lot of people in this state and around the world,” said Republican Sen. W. Briggs Hopson III. “They’ve told me about the pain this flag represents.”

He added: “If you care about economic development and you want to give Mississippi the best chance to succeed, to create more opportunity in our state, there’s no doubt in my mind — with 100 percent certainty, we need to get rid of the Confederate battle emblem.”

Nathan R. Shrader, a political science professor at Mississippi’s Millsaps College, called Sunday’s vote the result of a “confluence of events” that sped up a gradual shift away from the once-predominant support for keeping the old flag. He said that although there were ample signs that the shift was happening, especially among younger Mississippians, few would have expected even a vote on a flag change when the legislative session began this year.

“In 1865, the Confederacy surrendered and now in 2020, another piece of it falls here in one of the last bastions of where it’s upheld in the state’s official symbology,” he said. “That, to me, is what I think is historically significant and politically significant.”

Legislators cleared the first hurdle toward removing the old flag on Saturday, following days of tension in the state legislature. That morning, Reeves — who said on Wednesday that there was “an effort underway across the country to erase our nation’s history” — declared it was time “to resolve that the page has been turned.”

Hours later, the House and then the Senate swiftly passed measures allowing a vote on the flag. Those votes were procedural: Because the legislative session was nearing its end, lawmakers had to approve a measure suspending a deadline to introduce legislation on the flag.

The legislation approved on Sunday calls for the creation of a committee to approve a different design. There are two requirements for the new flag. It must feature the words “In God We Trust,” and it cannot include the Confederate battle emblem. The proposed design would go before voters in November for approval; if rejected, a different one would then be created and presented to voters.

In both the House and the Senate, there were more votes Sunday to replace the flag than there were a day earlier on the procedural measure to consider the flag change. Rep. Jerry Turner (R) was among those joining the push to replace the flag.

He said before the vote that he had hoped to turn the issue to voters. But, he said, the train had left the station and become “the train of unification.”

“I don’t know about you today, but I want to be one of the first ones to get my ticket punched green today to be on that train,” Turner said. “Because I can be a wholehearted participant and fulfill all the statements that I’ve made over the years that I wanted unity in our great state of Mississippi.”

The legislature’s decision was cheered as a sign of progress by those who had long advocated for stripping away the Confederate symbology.

Kathy Sykes, a black Democratic former representative who filed a bill in 2016 to create a new design, said she was relieved to know her granddaughter wouldn’t have to stand for a symbol that represents “oppression, second-class citizenship, a period of time when African Americans had no rights that white Mississippians would respect.”

“We pretend that it’s not there when we know that it’s the very first thing that our eyes focus on as African Americans,” she said Sunday. “For so long, we have accepted it because that’s what we’ve had to do. But if we had our choice, it would have been gone a long, long time ago.”