Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves signed a bill into law Tuesday that will change the state flag by removing the Confederate battle emblem, first included 126 years ago.
Legislators fast-tracked the measure over the weekend, with both chambers voting to suspend the rules Saturday to allow for debate and a vote. It passed Sunday on a House vote of 91-23, which was quickly followed by a 37-14 Senate vote.
Reeves said just before signing the bill that he hoped Mississippians would put their divisions behind them to unite for a greater good.
“This is not a political moment to me but a solemn occasion to lead Mississippi’s family to come together, to be reconciled and move on,” Reeves said.
The governor also said he understood the fear of many that the change could begin a chain of events that could lead to the erasure of the state’s complicated history. While Reeves said he stands against monuments’ being taken down, he said he did support a new flag.
“There is a difference between a monument and flags,” Reeves said. “A monument acknowledges and honors our past. A flag is a symbol of our present, of our people and of our future. For those reasons, we need a new symbol.”
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The bill calls for a commission to lead a flag redesign that eliminates the Confederate symbol but keeps the slogan “In God We Trust.” A redesign approved by the commission would be placed on the November ballot.
If voters reject the new design, the commission would try again for a new flag that would be presented to the Legislature during the 2021 session.
The current flag, featuring blue, white and red stripes with the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia 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 64 percent voted against a redesign.
Reeves said Tuesday that he still believed residents “eventually” would have voted for a new flag but that he did not think the state could handle a contentious political battle amid a pandemic and other turbulent issues arising in 2020.
“Our economy is on the edge of a cliff,” Reeves said. “Many lives depend on us cooperating and being careful to protect one another. I concluded our state has too much adversity to survive a bitter fight of brother against brother.”
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Mississippi had been under growing pressure, some of it from the NCAA and the Southeastern Conference, which warned this month that collegiate championship games could be barred in the state if the flag were not changed.
After the legislative votes Sunday, NCAA Commissioner Mark Emmert said in a statement that it was past time to change the flag, which “has too long served as a symbol of oppression, racism and injustice.”
Mississippi’s decision to change the flag after more than a century 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.