Amid ongoing national protests against racial injustice, Mississippi state lawmakers have paved the way for legislation to remove the Confederate symbol from the state flag.
On Saturday, the Republican-led House of Representatives and the Senate voted by a two-thirds majority to clear the path for a vote on a measure that would remove the current flag and replace it with a new design free of Confederate iconography.
After the votes were announced in each chamber, applause broke out. Earlier in the day, Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, indicated that he will sign a bill to change the flag if one reaches his desk, a shift from his previous position that voters should decide whether to change the flag via referendum.
Lawmakers on Saturday delivered impassioned speeches for and against abandoning the Confederate symbol, which has endured previous challengesand continued to draw ardent defenders who see it as an important piece of the state’s past. Many described the day in historic terms, invoking the Founding Fathers, their own family histories and future generations in explaining their votes.
Rep. Edward Blackmon Jr., a Democrat, who is black, said that he had overcome the feelings he had seeing the flag growing up but that it represents a painful history. He said his children and now his grandchildren have had questions about what it represents and called for a flag that would stir pride in all of the state’s residents – nearly 40 percent of whom are black.
“It ought to be something that we all feel a sense of pride that when we see it, we know that that’s about us,” he said. “Not just some of us.”
House Speaker Pro Tempore Jason White, a Republican, also argued forcefully against keeping the flag, saying that “whether we like it or not,” it had come to be viewed as a symbol of hate.
“By changing our flag, we don’t abandon our founding principles,” he said. “We embrace them more fully by doing what is right. We’re not moving further away from our Founding Fathers’ visions. We’re moving closer to them. We’re not destroying our heritage; we’re fulfilling it.”
Several legislators continued to argue that the fate of the flag should be left to voters.
Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Republican, one of the most vocal opponents of the measure, described attempts to change it as part of an effort to challenge the founding values of the country, warning that the American flag was next. He said voters should be allowed to decide, adding: “I don’t see how that makes me a racist. I don’t see how that makes me a terrible human being.”
Saturday’s vote was a procedural measure necessary so that legislators could consider a bill changing the flag. That measure, which requires a simple majority rather than a two-thirds vote, seems likely to pass and could be debated as early as Sunday.
It calls for the immediate removal of the existing flag and the creation of a commission to design a new one. The legislation stipulates that the words “In God We Trust” be included in the new flag and that it not include the Confederate battle flag.
The new version would go before voters for approval in November. If voters rejected the proposed flag, the commission would create a new one meeting the same requirements.
The debate has raged in recent weeks over the continued presence of the Confederate symbol – 13 white stars atop a blue X with a red background – on the upper-left corner of the Mississippi flag.
Adopted almost 30 years after the end of the Civil War, the banner has continued to fly despite years of criticism over its symbology and previous attempts to change it. In 2001, Mississippians voted 2-to-1 to keep it.
That same year, the only other state whose flag bore the Confederate battle emblem, Georgia, removed it following a legislative showdown. The design had been adopted in 1956, after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education to desegregate schools.
That left Mississippi alone in continuing to fly the battle emblem.
But as part of a new, heightened focus on Confederate symbols across the nation, some of the state’s legislators and institutions have come out against the flag for the first time. Among those now opposing the flag are multiple legislators from both parties, state universities and prominent members of their athletic departments, the Mississippi Historical Society, Walmart and the Mississippi Baptist Convention.
Some of the pressure has been financial, with the Mississippi Economic Council arguing that the state must show it is “open for business to everyone.” The group launched a campaign called “It’s Time” in support of changing the flag, taking out full-page ads in state newspapers. More than 100 business leaders supported the push, the council said.
And the National Collegiate Athletic Association on June 19 announced a ban on hosting championship events in states where the Confederate symbol “has a prominent presence” – a measure that applied only to Mississippi.
As the pressure mounted, Reeves went from saying Wednesday that there was “an effort underway across the country to erase our nation’s history” and that a veto “would be pointless” to a Saturday statement that he would sign a bill removing the symbol.
In that statement, he said it was time “to resolve that the page has been turned.”
“We should not be under any illusion that a vote in the Capitol is the end of what must be done – the job before us is to bring the state together,” Reeves said, “and I intend to work night and day to do it.”
(c) 2020, The Washington Post · Brittany Shammas ·