Mississippi lawmakers on Saturday took the first step toward changing the state flag, after nationwide protests of racial injustice refocused attention on the last in the country to continue featuring a Confederate emblem.
Applause broke out when the House of Representatives voted 85 to 35 to suspend rules and allow consideration of a bill creating a new design free of Confederate iconography.
Ahead of the historic vote, Speaker Pro Tem Jason White (R) argued forcefully against keeping the old flag, saying that 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.”
Earlier in the day, Gov. Tate Reeves (R), who had long insisted voters alone should decide whether to abandon the state’s flag, said for the first time Saturday that he would sign a bill on the issue if one is sent his way.
“The legislature has been deadlocked for days as it considers a new state flag,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “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.”
A debate has raged this week over the state flag, the last in the country to feature the Confederate battle flag in its design. The symbol, with 13 white stars atop a blue X with a red background, appears in the Mississippi flag’s upper-left corner.
Adopted more than 30 years after the end of the Civil War, the banner has continued to fly despite years of criticism over its symbology, including previous attempts to change it. In 2001, Mississippians voted 2-to-1 to keep the 1894 design.
But amid a heightened focus on Confederate symbols across the nation, Mississippi legislators and institutions have in recent days come out against the flag. Among those now opposing the flag are multiple legislators from both parties, the Mississippi Historical Society, Walmart and the Mississippi Baptist Convention.
A state lawmaker told CNN Friday there now might be enough votes to remove it.
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 his Saturday statement that it was time “resolve that the page has been turned” and “find a way to come together.”
“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 in his Saturday statement, “and I intend to work night and day to do it.”