Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) signed a bill Tuesday abandoning the state’s flag and stripping the Confederate battle flag symbol from it, capping a remarkable turnaround on a banner that had flown over the state for more than a century.
With Reeves’s move, Mississippi will take down one of the country’s most prominent Confederate tributes, withdrawing the only state flag that still bears such an emblem. The new flag’s design will be determined later, but lawmakers have barred it from including the most recognizable icon of the Confederacy, which many people associate with racism, slavery and oppression.
“This is not a political moment to me but a solemn occasion to lead our Mississippi family to come together and move on,” Reeves said at a ceremony at which he signed the measure Tuesday evening. “A flag is a symbol of our past, our present and our future. For those reasons, we need a new symbol.”
Reeves’s signature came two days after Mississippi lawmakers, facing a nationwide campaign for racial justice, passed the measure removing the state’s flag and calling for a replacement.
Lawmakers had debated the change over the weekend, with supporters of a change saying the flag had become a symbol of hatred. Opponents of jettisoning it said history would be abandoned and called instead for a statewide vote. When lawmakers voted to approve the move, loud applause broke out inside the state Capitol.
“This is a new day for Mississippi,” state House Speaker Philip Gunn (R), who had backed a change for years, said Monday morning on MSNBC, while standing in front of a man waving the state’s now-former flag. “We are not disregarding our heritage, we’re not ignoring the past, but we are embracing the future here.”
In the bill, lawmakers laid out two requirements for the flag’s eventual replacement: It cannot include the Confederate symbol and it must incorporate the phrase “In God We Trust.”
Mississippi’s now-former flag, adopted in 1894, previously had seemed immovable, surviving previous pushes to abandon it. During a statewide referendum in 2001, voters overwhelmingly chose to preserve it.
In 2015, Gunn announced his support for changing the flag during efforts to wipe Confederate iconography from public spaces after an avowed white supremacist’s massacre of nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston, S.C.
The gunman had posted a manifesto riddled with images of the Confederate battle flag, and in response, retailers vowed to stop selling items bearing that symbol and South Carolina took down a Confederate battle flag that had flown on its statehouse grounds.
But the flag in Mississippi — a state where nearly 4 in 10 residents are black — stayed aloft until the more recent swell of activism after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The protests grew from an attack on policing tactics to a far broader campaign against racial injustice, and it has begun producing change in unexpected areas. NASCAR announced it would ban displays of the Confederate battle flag, while some demonstrators toppled or damaged Confederate memorials and other monuments, including those honoring Christopher Columbus, in cities across the country.
Opponents of Mississippi’s flag also began speaking out anew, with calls to remove it coming from a parade of powerful and high-profile voices that included college sports powerhouses, religious leaders, historical groups and celebrities.
The Mississippi Historical Society said Confederate imagery had been associated “with various acts of terror and violence that have accompanied some of our nation’s most recent racial injustices.” Music superstar Faith Hill, a Mississippi native, called the flag “a direct symbol of terror for our black brothers and sisters,” while the Mississippi Baptist Convention called for a flag that “promotes unity rather than division.”
“What it represented was a time which was not inclusive for people who look like me,” said Jarrius Adams, 22, an activist and president of the Young Democrats of Mississippi. “It’s not a good feeling to be a person of African American descent and have that represent our state.”
College sports took aim at the flag. The NCAA said it would not allow any championship events to be played in states where the Confederate battle flag “has a prominent presence,” a policy the association acknowledged affected only Mississippi.
The Southeastern Conference, where the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University both play, also said it would not allow any conference championship games to be hosted in the state. Leaders from both schools chimed in to say they backed changing the flag.
After the legislature voted to take down the flag, the NCAA and the SEC both praised the decision, which they said would allow the state to host the championship games again.
Opponents of changing the flag had decried the move and said they felt the decision should be left up to residents. The Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans posted a statement telling lawmakers not to embark upon “some Legislative fiat, instead of allowing us to decide what our flag will be.”
State Sen. Chris McDaniel (R), who opposed altering the flag, said the legislature’s action came amid a “heavy-handed context of political correctness” in a video statement posted on Facebook.
“The people of this state are incredibly frustrated,” he said in the message. “They should be incredibly frustrated. Not necessarily because the flag came down, but because [of] the way the flag came down. It came down in a manner, in a method and in a time that was completely wrongheaded.”
But arguments that the decision should have been left to voters run counter to how the flag was established in the first place, said Charles K. Ross, a history professor at the University of Mississippi.
“In 1894, the citizens of Mississippi didn’t have a choice,” Ross said. “The legislature arbitrarily put this flag up to represent and be the representative image of the entire state, when African Americans weren’t even allowed to participate in the political process . . . they made that unilateral decision in 1894, they had the responsibility of making it again in 2020.”
The bill passed by lawmakers says that within 15 days of it taking effect, there must be a “prompt, dignified and respectful removal” of the now-former state flag.
Rather than establishing a new flag to immediately replace it, the measure instead sets up a commission that will be tasked with presenting a new design for Mississippi residents to consider later this year.
The bill calls for a commission of nine people — appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker — to create this new flag design by mid-September, which will then be put on the ballot in November. If voters support the flag, it will be adopted by lawmakers. And if voters oppose it, the commission must come up with a new design and once again put it up for a statewide vote.
While the previous efforts at changing the flag have failed, “the stars kind of aligned” for it to finally happen amid the current moment, said Adams, the activist, who had protested the flag. And while the change is welcome, he said, it’s not the end of the push for change in the state.
“I don’t give people pats on the back, because you normally don’t get a trophy for being last,” Adams said. “It does show a shift in times in Mississippi . . . but there’s so much work to be done.”