Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves signed a bill into law on Tuesday that will change the state flag by removing the Confederate battle emblem, first included 126 years ago.
Mississippi state legislators fast-tracked the measure over the weekend, with both chambers voting to suspend the rules Saturday, allowing for debate and a vote on the bill. It passed Sunday with a House vote of 91-23 that was quickly followed by a 37-14 Senate vote.
Reeves said just prior to signing the bill that he hoped Mississippians would put their divisions behind them to unite for a greater good.
“This is not a political moment to me, but a solemn occasion to lead Mississippi’s family to come together, to be reconciled and move on,” Reeves said.
The governor also said he understood the fear of many that the change would begin a chain of events that could lead to the erasure of the state’s complicated history. While Reeves said he stands against monuments being taken down, he said he did support a new flag.
“There is a difference between a monument and flags,” Reeve said. “A monument acknowledges and honors our past. A flag is a symbol of our present, of our people and of our future. For those reasons we need a new symbol.”
The bill calls for the formation of a commission to lead a flag redesign that eliminates the Confederate symbol but keeps the slogan “In God We Trust.” A redesign approved by the committee would then be placed on the November ballot.
If voters reject the new design in November, the commission would try again for a new flag that would be presented to the Legislature during the 2021 session.
The current flag, featuring red, white and blue stripes with the Confederate battle emblem in the corner, was adopted in February 1894, according to the Mississippi Historical Society.
Other attempts to change the flag have fallen short over the years, including a 2001 public referendum in which 64 percent voted against a redesign.
Reeves said Tuesday that he still believed that residents would have “eventually” voted for a new flag at the ballot box, but he did not think the state could handle a contentious political battle amid a pandemic and other turbulent issues arising in 2020.
“Our economy is on the edge of a cliff,” Reeves said. “Many lives depend on us cooperating and being careful to protect one another. I concluded our state has too much adversity to survive a bitter fight of brother against brother.”
The new movement to take the Confederate symbol off the flag came as Mississippi was under growing pressure, including from the NCAA, whose Southeastern Conference warned earlier this month that championship games could be barred in the state if the flag weren’t changed.
After the legislative votes Sunday, NCAA Commissioner Mark Emmert said in a statement it was past time to change the flag that “has too long served as a symbol of oppression, racism and injustice.”
Mississippi’s decision to change the flag after more than a century comes during a new reckoning on racial inequality in America. In the weeks since the May 25 death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody, protesters across the country have demanded systemic changes in policing while seeking to remove symbols of oppression.
Among the structures that have been targeted are statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Virginia, President Andrew Jackson in Washington, D.C., and Juan de Oñate, a conquistador, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.