JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi officials held a ceremony Wednesday afternoon to relegate the former state flag to history, a day after Republican Gov. Tate Reeves signed a new law removing official status from the last state banner in the U.S. that included the Confederate battle emblem.
Mississippi faced increasing pressure in recent weeks to change its 126-year-old flag since protests against racial injustice have focused attention on Confederate symbols.
A broad coalition of legislators on Sunday passed the landmark legislation to change the flag, capping a weekend of emotional debate and decades of effort by Black lawmakers and others who see the rebel emblem as a symbol of hatred and racism.
“There are people on either side of the flag debate who may never understand the other. We as a family must show empathy,” Reeves said during Tuesday’s bill signing ceremony at the Governor’s Mansion. “We must understand that all who want change are not attempting to erase history. And all who want the status quo are not mean-spirited or hateful.”
The new law requires a ceremony for the “prompt, dignified and respectful removal” of the banner. Flags that have flown over the Capitol are being lowered and presented to the state Department of Archives and History. The Museum of Mississippi History, near the Capitol, will establish an exhibit about the retired flag.
Mississippi will be without a flag for at least a few months. A commission will design a new one that cannot include the Confederate symbol and must have the words “In God We Trust.” Voters will be asked to approve the design in the Nov. 3 election. If they reject it, the commission will draft a different design using the same guidelines, to be sent to voters later.
The Confederate battle emblem has a red field topped by a blue X with 13 white stars. White supremacist legislators put it on the upper-left corner of the Mississippi flag in 1894, as white people were squelching political power that African Americans had gained after the Civil War.
Critics have said for generations that it’s wrong for a state where 38% of the people are Black to have a flag marked by the Confederacy, particularly since the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups have used the symbol to promote racist agendas.
Mississippi voters chose to keep the flag in a 2001 statewide election, with supporters saying they saw it as a symbol of Southern heritage. But since then, a growing number of cities and all the state’s public universities have abandoned it.
Several Black legislators, and a few white ones, kept pushing for years to change it. After a white gunman who had posed with the Confederate flag killed Black worshipers at a South Carolina church in 2015, Mississippi’s Republican speaker of the House, Philip Gunn, said his religious faith compelled him to say that Mississippi must purge the symbol from its flag.
The issue was still broadly considered too volatile for legislators to touch, until the police custody death of an African American man in Minneapolis, George Floyd. His death set off weeks of sustained protests against racial injustice, followed by calls to take down Confederate symbols.
A groundswell of young activists, college athletes and leaders from business, religion, education and sports called on Mississippi to make the change, finally providing the momentum for legislators to vote.