Spectators at the Mississippi Capitol broke into cheers and applause Saturday as lawmakers took a big step toward erasing the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag, a symbol that has come under intensifying criticism in recent weeks amid nationwide protests against racial injustice.
“The eyes of the state, the nation and indeed the world are on this House,” Republican Rep. Jason White told his colleagues.
On the other end of the Capitol, Sen. Briggs Hopson declared: “Today, you — Mississippi — have a date with destiny.”
Mississippi has the last state flag with the Confederate battle emblem — a red field topped by a blue X with 13 white stars. Many see the emblem as racist, and the flag has been divisive for generations in a state with a 38% Black population.
Republican Gov. Tate Reeves said Saturday for the first time that he would sign a bill to change the flag if the Republican-controlled Legislature sends him one. He previously said he would not veto one — a more passive stance.
“The argument over the 1894 flag has become as divisive as the flag itself and it’s time to end it,” Reeves said.
On Saturday, the House and Senate voted by more than the required two-thirds majority to suspend legislative deadlines and file a bill to change the flag. That allows debate on a bill as soon as Sunday.
Saturday’s vote was the big test, though, because of the margin. Only a simple majority is needed to pass a bill.
“I would never have thought that I would see the flag come down in my lifetime,” said Democratic Sen. Barbara Blackmon of Canton, who is African American.
A bill will erase the current Mississippi flag from state law. A commission will design a new flag that cannot include the Confederate battle emblem but must have the phrase “In God We Trust.” The new design will be put on the ballot Nov. 3. If a majority voting that day accept the new design, it will become the state flag. If a majority reject it, the commission will design a new flag using the same guidelines.
“I know there are many good people who … believe that this flag is a symbol of our Southern pride and heritage,” said White, the Republican speaker pro tempore of the House. “But for most people throughout our nation and the world, they see that flag and think that it stands for hatred and oppression.”
Republican Rep. Chris Brown of Nettleton appeared at a 2016 rally outside the state Capitol for people who want to keep the Confederate emblem on the flag. He said Saturday that the current flag and a proposed new design should both go on the ballot.
“I don’t think we can move forward together if we say, ‘You can have any flag you want except … this one,’” Brown said. “If we put the current flag on the ballot with another good design, the people of Mississippi will change it. … Let’s not steal their joy.”
White supremacists in the Legislature set the state flag design in 1894 during backlash to the political power that African Americans gained after the Civil War.
The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the flag lacked official status. State laws were updated in 1906, and portions dealing with the flag were not carried forward. Legislators set a flag election in 2001, and voters kept the rebel-themed design.
Democratic state Rep. Ed Blackmon of Canton — the husband of Sen. Barbara Blackmon — told the House on Saturday that threats were made against him and others who served on a flag design commission in 2000. Ed Blackmon said Mississippi needs a design without the Confederate design so his children and grandchildren can stand at attention when they see it.
“We’ll all be proud to say, ‘That’s my flag, too,’” Blackmon said.
All of the state’s public universities and several cities and counties have stopped flying it because of the Confederate symbol.
Influential business, religious, education and sports groups are calling on Mississippi to drop the Confederate symbol.
People for and against the current flag filled the Capitol on Saturday.
Karen Holt of Edwards, Mississippi, was with several people asking lawmakers to adopt a new banner with a magnolia, which is both the state tree and the state flower. She said it would represent “joy of being a citizen of the United States,” unlike the current flag.
“We don’t want anything flying over them, lofty, exalting itself, that grabs onto a deadly past,” Holt said.
Dan Hartness of Ellisville, Mississippi, walked outside the Capitol carrying a pole that with the American flag and the current Mississippi flag. He said the state flag pays tribute to those who fought in the Civil War.
“Being a veteran, that’s important to me — that you remember these guys that fought in battle, whether they’re on the right side or the wrong side,” Hartness said.