Mississippi’s legislature voted to replace the state’s flag, the last in the nation to feature the Confederate battle symbol.
House and Senate pass measure to remove Confederate symbol
The last state flag in the nation to prominently feature the Confederate battle emblem is poised to come down across Mississippi, after state lawmakers voted Sunday to replace the 126-year-old design.
Amid a national reckoning over racial injustice, the House, and then the Senate, approved the measure to loud applause. By late Sunday, the bill was headed to Gov. Tate Reeves (R), who indicated previously that he would sign it. With his approval, the flag must be removed from government buildings within 15 days.
The flag’s retirement gained legislative approval late in the afternoon, by margins of 91 to 23 in the House and 37 to 14 in the Senate, after senators tabled an amendment that would have left the decision with voters via a referendum. Before voting, lawmakers lined up to offer impassioned speeches both for and against replacing the flag, which has weathered previous criticism and removal attempts.
“In the name of history, I stand for my two sons who are 1 and 6 years old,” said Sen. Derrick Simmons (D), who is black. “Who should be educated in schools, be able to frequent businesses and express their black voices in public spaces that all fly a symbol of love, not hate. A symbol of unity, not division. A symbol that represents all Mississippians, not some.”
Sen. Chris Mcdaniel (R), one of the most vocal opponents of changing the flag, argued that doing so could lead to a slippery slope, saying attempts are being made nationally to challenge the nation’s founding and history. He made a final plea for voters to be allowed to choose. “After all,” he said, “it’s their state, not ours.”
But in a state that is nearly 40 percent black, the flag’s Confederate iconography has long been divisive. Adopted in 1894, nearly 30 years after the end of the Civil War, it features the Confederate emblem — 13 white stars atop a blue X with a red background — in the upper-left corner.
Although it had increasingly come to be viewed as a symbol of oppression, the flag still draws defenders who consider it part of their heritage. Lawmakers who did not support abandoning the design said their constituents had voiced passionate and emotional pleas to keep it.
“When we remove our history or set our history aside, then we lose the opportunity to educate and inform and to have a conversation about what the true meaning of things are,” said Sen. Melanie Sojourner (R), adding that “if we remove things, we don’t have the opportunity to have the conversations.”
Before this month, the flag faced its most serious challenge in 2001, when a referendum offered voters a choice of whether to replace it. They voted 2 to 1 to keep it. That year, the only other state whose flag bore the Confederate battle emblem, Georgia, changed it after a legislative showdown.
Over the years, various bills to retire Mississippi’s flag have not achieved any real momentum. But after widespread protests of racial injustice focused renewed attention on symbols of the Confederacy, state officials had faced mounting pressure.
In the past few weeks, businesses, universities and faith leaders demanded its replacement. Influential institutions, including the Southern Baptist Convention, joined those calls. University coaches and athletes came to the capital, Jackson, to urge lawmakers to act. Walmart stopped flying the flag at its stores, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced a ban on holding championship events in states where the Confederate symbol “has a prominent presence” — a measure that applied only to Mississippi.
Legislators who had previously opposed replacing the flag began to change their stances, with some citing fear that the state would lose out on job creation and economic development if it clung to the Confederate symbol.
Nathan R. Shrader, a political science professor at Mississippi’s Millsaps College, called Sunday’s vote the result of a “confluence of events” that sped up a gradual shift away from the once-predominant position of keeping the old flag. He said that although there were ample signs that the shift was happening, with younger generations especially in favor of a change, few would have expected even a vote on a change when the legislative session began this year.
“In 1865, the Confederacy surrendered and now in 2020, another piece of it falls here in one of the last bastions of where it’s upheld in the state’s official symbology,” he said. “That, to me, is what I think is historically significant and politically significant.”
Legislators cleared the first hurdle toward removing the old flag on Saturday, following days of tension in the state legislature. That morning, Reeves — who said on Wednesday that there was “an effort underway across the country to erase our nation’s history” — said it was time “to resolve that the page has been turned.”
Hours later, the House and then the Senate swiftly passed measures allowing a vote on the flag. Those votes were procedural: Because the legislative session was nearing its end, lawmakers had to approve a measure suspending a deadline to introduce legislation on the flag.
The legislation approved on Sunday calls for the creation of a committee to approve a new design. There are two requirements for a new flag. It must feature the words “In God We Trust,” and it cannot include the Confederate battle emblem. The proposed design would go before voters in November for approval; if rejected, a different one would then be created and presented to voters.
Don Hartness of Ellisville, Miss., walks around the capitol in Jackson on Saturday carrying the state flag and the American flag. Both chambers of the legislature voted Sunday to remove the Confederate symbols from the flag, which was adopted in 1894.