JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – With a tap of the governor’s pen, Mississippi withdraws the last state flag in the US with the Confederate battle emblem – a symbol widely condemned as racist.
Republican Governor Tate Reeves signed the historic bill at the Governor’s Mansion on Tuesday, immediately lifting official status for the 126-year-old banner that has been a source of division for generations.
“This is not a political moment for me, but a solemn opportunity to get our Mississippi family to come together, reconcile and move forward,” Reeves said on live TV just before signing. “We are a resilient people defined by our hospitality. We are a people of great faith. Now, more than ever, we must rely on that faith, leave our divisions behind and unite for a greater good.”
Mississippi is under increasing pressure to change its flag since protests against racial injustice have drawn attention to Southern symbols in recent weeks.
A broad coalition of lawmakers passed landmark law on Sunday to change the flag, culminating in a weekend of emotional debate and decades of efforts by black lawmakers and others who see the rebel emblem as a symbol of hatred.
Among the small group of dignitaries who witnessed the bill being signed included Reuben Anderson, the first African-American justice in the Mississippi Supreme Court to serve from 1985 to 1991; Willie Simmons, a current state transportation commissioner, the first African-American to be elected to that position; and Reena Evers-Everette, daughter of civil rights icons Medgar and Myrlie Evers.
Medgar Evers, a leader of the NAACP in Mississippi, was murdered in the family driveway in 1963. Myrlie Evers was National President of the NAACP in the mid-1990s and is still alive.
“That Southern symbol is not who Mississippi is now. Nor is it what it was in 1894, including all Mississippians, ”said Evers-Everette after the ceremony. “But now we are moving to a place of total inclusion and unity with our hearts, along with our thoughts and actions.”
Reeves used several pens to sign the bill. As he completed the trial, there was a cheer from people outside the Governor’s Mansion watching the live stream broadcast on their phones. Reeves handed the pens over to legislators and others who had worked on the matter.
The Confederate battle emblem has a red field with a blue X with 13 white stars on it. White supremacist lawmakers placed it in the top left corner of the Mississippi flag in 1894, as whites suppressed the political power African Americans had acquired after the civil war.
Critics have said for generations that it is wrong for a state where 38% of people are black to have a flag marked by the Confederacy, especially since the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups have used the symbol to represent racist agendas to promote.
Mississippi voters chose to hold the flag at a 2001 statewide election, with supporters saying they saw the flag as a symbol of southern heritage. But since then, a growing number of cities and all of the state’s public universities have given up.
Several black lawmakers and a few white ones have been pushing for years to change it. After a white gunman who posed with the Southern flag killed black worshipers in a South Carolina church in 2015, Mississippi’s Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn said his religious affiliation forced him to say that Mississippi is the symbol of his had to remove flag.
The issue was still widely regarded as too volatile for lawmakers to touch until police arrested the death of an African-American man in Minneapolis, Minneapolis for weeks of protests against racial injustice followed by calls to destroy Southern symbols .
A flood of young activists, college athletes, and business, religion, education, and sports leaders called on Mississippi to make this change, finally giving lawmakers the momentum to vote.
Before the bill was signed on Tuesday, state officials hoisted and lowered several flags on a pole outside the Capitol. The Secretary of State’s office sells flags for $ 20 each, and a spokeswoman said the number of requests has increased recently.
At recent press conferences, Reeves declined to say whether he thought the Confederate-themed flag properly reflects current Mississippi and holds on to a position he drove on last year when he promised that if the flag design were reconsidered it would be done at another national election.
Now a committee will design a new flag that should not contain the Confederate symbol and should have the words “In God We Trust.” Voters will be asked to approve it in the November 3 elections. If they reject it, the committee will draw up another draft according to the same guidelines, which will be sent to voters later.
Before signing about the flag’s demise, Reeves said, “We are all Mississippians and we must all come together. There is no better way to do that than to include ‘In God We Trust’ on our new state banner. “
He added, “The people of Mississippi, black and white, and young and old, can be proud of a banner that puts our faith at the center. We can unite under it. We can move forward – together. ‘
Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.
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