Mississippi lawmakers were working Sunday to change the state flag by removing a Confederate battle emblem that is widely condemned as racist.
The House passed bill 91-23 with broad bipartisan support, sending it to the Senate for further debate.
“How sweet it is to celebrate this on the Lord’s Day,” said Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Philip Gunn, who has lobbied for five years to change the flag. “Many prayed to him to bring us to this day. He has responded.”
Republican Governor Tate Reeves has said he will sign the bill and that the state flag will lose its official status as soon as the measure is signed. A commission would design a new flag that cannot include the Confederate symbol and must have the words “In God We Trust”.
Under the legislation, the new design, without the Confederate symbol, would be put on the ballot on November 3, but it would be the only option. If a majority accepts the new design, it would become the state flag. If a majority rejects it, the commission would design a new flag using the same guidelines.
Supporters of the flag have resisted efforts to change it for decades, but rapid developments in recent weeks have changed the dynamic on this issue in the tradition-bound state.
As protests against racial injustice recently spread across the United States, including Mississippi, leaders of business, religion, education, and sports have spoken out vigorously against the state flag. They have urged lawmakers to drop the 126-year-old banner for one that better reflects the diversity of a state with a black population of 38 percent.
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The House of Representatives and the Senate met on Saturday and took a big step: by two-thirds margins, they suspended legislative deadlines so that a bill could be presented. Spectators cheered as each chamber voted, and lawmakers seeking the change embraced.
Democrat Senator David Jordan, who is African American, has lobbied for decades to change the flag. He smiled broadly after Saturday’s vote and said, “This is a metamorphosis.”
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, as have a growing number of cities and counties.
White supremacists in the Mississippi Legislature established the state flag design in 1894 during the backlash to political power that African Americans won after the Civil War.
In 2000, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that the flag lacked official status. State laws were updated in 1906, and parts related to the flag were not pursued. Lawmakers established a flag election in 2001, and voters upheld the rebel-themed design.
Former state representative Steve Holland was on Capitol Hill Sunday urging lawmakers to change the flag. As a member of the Democratic House in 2000, Holland served on a commission that held public hearings on the flag. He said Sunday that he and other commissioners received death threats at the time.
Holland, who is white, said he voted in the 2001 election to keep the flag, but now he sees the rebel symbol as harmful.
“People have changed,” said Holland. “The country has changed. The world has changed.”
Former Ole Miss basketball player Blake Hinson told his hometown of Daytona Beach, Florida News-Journal that the Mississippi flag played a role in his decision to transfer to the state of Iowa.
“It was time to go and leave Ole Miss,” Hinson said. “I am proud that I no longer represent that flag and that I am not associated with anything that represents the Confederation.”
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Reeves and many other politicians have said that people should vote on flag design in other state elections.
People who want to keep the Confederate themed flag could gather more than 100,000 signatures to present that design for the state election. However, it is too late to include her on the ballot in November due to deadlines set by state law.