Mississippi lawmakers vote to withdraw State Flag rooted in Confederation

JACKSON, Miss. – Mississippi lawmakers voted Sunday to tear down, once and for all, the state flag dominated by the emblem of the Confederate battle that has been waving for 126 years, adding a punctuation point to years of efforts to tear down the relics. of the Confederation. throughout the south.

The flag, the only remaining state flag in the country with the Confederate symbol, served for many as an inescapable sign of Mississippi’s racial scarring and the consequences of that history in defining the state’s perceptions.

Still embraced by many white Mississipis as a proud display of the Old South’s heritage, the flag increasingly evokes segregation, racial violence, and a war that had the central goal of preserving slavery.

In Mississippi, the state with the highest percentage of African Americans in the nation, that has long been the understanding of black residents. It is now the sight of many white Mississippians as well. For others, the drag on outsiders’ perception of the state and continued internal friction were battles too costly to continue waging.

The Mississippi House vote was 91 in favor of the removal and 23 against. The vote in the Senate was 37-14. The measure now goes to Governor Tate Reeves, a Republican, who has said he will sign it.

Mississippi began to grapple with the flag once again this spring as a result of the death of George Floyd in the custody of the Minneapolis police, which quickly became an expression of fury and exasperation at the countless manifestations of the tangled racial history of the nation.

“This was a long time coming,” said Nsombi Lambright-Haines after applause erupted on Capitol Hill and a huddled crowd threw the coronavirus precautions aside for a brief second and hugged each other.

“I am happy to see this happen in my life, in the life of my son, in the life of my grandmother,” added Ms. Lambright-Haines, a NAACP volunteer who has been involved in efforts to bring down the flag for two years. decades. (Her grandmother is 96 years old).

Amid a movement that tore down monuments of Confederates, colonizers, and conquerors and stripped the names of segregationists of buildings and programs, the pressure soon focused on the flag.

Lawmakers faced a cascade of calls in and out of Mississippi as opposition was brought together across racial, religious, partisan, and cultural divisions. The soccer and basketball coaches paraded through the Capitol urging a change. A mixed assortment that included country music stars, the state’s black and white Baptist conventions, civil rights organizations, and associations of bankers, manufacturers, and librarians also indicated their opposition.

“People’s hearts have changed,” Philip Gunn, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, one of the strongest advocates of bringing the measure to a vote in the Legislature, told reporters on Sunday. “We are better today than yesterday, and because we are better, we are stronger.”

The legislation sent to Mr. Reeves proposes to abolish the old flag and create a commission to design a new one. The new banner would be prohibited from having the emblem of the Confederate battle and must include the phrase “In God we trust.” The commission would be tasked with coming up with a design before September to vote on the November ballot.

The legislation would require removal “prompt, dignified and respectful” within 15 days after the law comes into force.

Reeves, a Republican, said Saturday that he would sign a bill, representing the latest evolution in his thinking. Initially, he said that any decision to change the flag should be made directly by voters.

“The discussion about the 1894 flag has become as divisive as the flag itself,” Reeves said in a statement, “and it is time to end it.”

The legislation removed a significant procedural hurdle on Saturday as a super-majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate voted to move forward.

Many lawmakers said removing the flag had an air of inevitability, as Mississippi was increasingly seen as a prominent place as activists lobbied to minimize and contextualize the remains of the Confederacy that had long been on display.

The argument for changing the flag was moral for some. However, calls for change resonated more broadly due to economic concerns raised by business leaders and moderate Republicans. They argued that Mississippi, as one of the poorest states, could not afford to have barriers that keep foreign investment away.

The financial threat had been underscored by recent announcements by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Southeastern Conference that Mississippi would not be able to host championship events until the flag was changed.

“I don’t know how long I want to sit and watch Mississippi get kicked out by a piece of cloth we have on our capitol,” W. Briggs Hopson III, a Republican state senator, said before the vote. .

The great effort to change the flag denied the scope of the division that still exists over the banner and how to interpret the legacy it symbolizes. Multiple polls show that despite the number of people supporting change has increased, almost half the state resisted the idea.

“Whether we like it or not, the Confederate emblem on our state’s flag is seen by many as a symbol of hatred, there is no way to avoid that fact,” said Jason White, a Republican state representative, on the floor of the House on Saturday. .

Many remain attached to the flag because they see it as a lasting recognition of the blood shed by their ancestors who fought for Mississippi and their pride in the state’s history.

Resistance to voting has already emerged: The Mississippi Confederate Veterans Sons Division, in a post on its Facebook page, suggested bringing voters together to impede any effort to replace the flag. “We need to find ways to make this as difficult as possible for them to repent,” the post said.

One person replied, “I have a flag and it is not changing.”

Chris McDaniel, a Republican state senator who has been one of the most ardent critics of the legislation, argued that changing the flag represented a dangerous precedent to erase history.

“To insist that somehow the slippery slope is illogical is to ignore the tide of history,” he said Sunday in the Senate. “Everywhere we look, people seek these changes and cannot, will not be appeased.”

During the Legislature discussion, much of the dissent over the flag change focused less on direct defense of the flag and more on expressing support for a referendum.

Chris Brown, a Republican state representative, said he had heard from many voters who supported the removal of the flag, but also wanted to use a state vote to send a message about Mississippi.

“They want to show the world that they are moving forward,” Brown said.

It would be a stark contrast since the last time the flag was opened for a state vote, in 2001, when voters overwhelmingly decided to keep it.

The effort was revived five years ago after a white supremacist killed nine African American worshipers in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, prompting the removal of monuments to the Confederacy across the region, as well as battle flags in the state land in Alabama and South Carolina. (Several other southern states have flags that are considered to obliquely reference Confederate iconography, including Alabama and Florida.)

Many cities moved alone to tear down the flag, and the state’s eight public universities lowered it on their campuses.

Before voting Sunday, lawmakers described the fight with competitive emotions about the meaning of the flag and spoke passionately about the desire to unify Mississippi. “That is what we have all prayed for,” said Jerry R. Turner, a Republican representative.

At least one had cried after the vote, as he recognized the symbolic power of lowering the flag.

“This has taught us a lesson,” Robert L. Johnson III, the Democratic leader of the House, told reporters, noting that the legislation had bipartisan support linking racial and geographic lines. “We are a Mississippi on the move.”

The House and Senate galleries had few crowds due to coronavirus precautions, but the people standing there and waiting in the halls of the Capitol erupted in applause as soon as the Senate count was announced.

Arekia Bennett, a 27-year-old Mississippi native, was overwhelmed with emotions.

“Mississippi had to make some character decisions, and today we did,” said Bennett, executive director of Mississippi Votes, a voting rights organization.

She noted how, after years of pressing, the balance had suddenly shifted in favor of those who wanted to withdraw the flag from history. “This is progress,” he said, “that no one thought we could do.”