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Mississippi Legislature passes bill to eliminate Confederate symbol from state flag

Gov. Tate Reeves has said he intends to sign the bill into law.
Image: state flag, LSU v Mississippi
A fan waves a Mississippi state flag during a game between the University of Mississippi Rebels and the LSU Tigers at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss., on Oct. 21, 2017.Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images file

Mississippi lawmakers voted Sunday to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag, a symbol that has flown for more than 120 years.

The state House and Senate approved a suspension of the rules Saturday, allowing for debate and a vote on the bill. It passed the House on Sunday by a vote of 91-23, quickly followed by a 37-14 Senate vote.

Speaking before the vote, Democratic state Sen. Derrick Simmons urged his colleagues to vote for the "Mississippi of tomorrow."

"In the name of history, I stand for my two sons, who are 1 and 6 years old, who should be educated in schools and be able to frequent businesses and express their Black voices in public places that all fly a symbol of love, not hate," he said.

Before the vote, an amendment that would have given voters the opportunity to keep the flag or select a new design failed. Speaking in favor of a referendum, Republican Sen. Chris McDaniel said people were angry because they wanted a chance to weigh in.

"We've been told this is a moment of unity," he said. "I checked social media last night, and I didn't see very much unity. They don't feel like they have a voice in a really interesting time in our country's history."

The bill's text calls for the formation of a commission that would be in charge of a flag redesign that eliminates the Confederate symbol but keeps the slogan "In God We Trust." A redesign approved by the committee will then be placed on the November ballot.

If voters reject the new design in November, the commission will try again for a new flag that would be presented to the Legislature during the 2021 session.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, who had expressed resistance to legislators' changing the flag, said he would sign the bill if it came across his desk.

"The Legislature has been deadlocked for days as it considers a new state flag," Reeves said in a tweet Saturday morning. "The argument over the 1894 flag has become as divisive as the flag itself and it's time to end it. If they send me a bill this weekend, I will sign it."

Reeves had said that any change to the flag should come through a popular vote rather than the Legislature. He acknowledged in a Facebook post Thursday, however, that vetoing such legislation would be "pointless."

The president of the NCAA, which had threatened to bar championship games from the state if the Confederate symbol wasn't removed, said Sunday that he looked forward to Reeve signing the bill.

"It has too long served as a symbol of oppression, racism and injustice," NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a statement. "We welcome this important move by state lawmakers to remove the symbol from prominence in the state, which will also open the opportunity to host NCAA championships after the recently expanded championship policy.”

The current flag, featuring red, white and blue stripes with the Confederate battle emblem in the corner, was adopted in February 1894, according to the Mississippi Historical Society.

Other attempts to change the flag have fallen short over the years, including a 2001 public referendum in which Mississippi voters were given a chance to change the flag. The proposal failed, as 64 percent voted against a redesign.

Full coverage of George Floyd's death and protests around the country

Mississippi's decision to change the 126-year-old flag comes during a new reckoning on racial inequality in America. In the weeks since the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, protesters across the country have demanded systemic changes in policing while seeking to remove symbols of oppression.

Among the structures that have been targeted are statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Virginia, President Andrew Jackson in Washington, D.C., and Juan de Oñate, a conquistador in Albuquerque, New Mexico.