Mississippi legislature votes to remove Confederate emblem from state flag

‘I don’t care whether you fly it in your own home, but don’t fly it over my children’

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Mississippi lawmakers have agreed to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state’s banner, retiring a more than 100-year-old vestige of the Civil War and spectre of white supremacy in the state.

Voters will decide the future of the flag's design after state legislators approved several measures over the weekend to begin the current flag’s removal.

A bill passed on Sunday calls for the immediate removal of the flag as it currently flies.

The move follows renewed mainstream debate over Confederate monuments and symbols across the US in the wake of widespread protests against racial injustice and systemic racism.

In its declaration of secession, Confederate Mississippi said: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world.” The state’s current flag was adopted nearly three decades after the Civil War.

On Saturday, the measure passed a significant procedural hurdle – a resolution to that required two-thirds majorities in both chambers – before lawmakers could vote on a measure to begin removing the flag.

A resolution passed by both chambers on Sunday created a nine-member commission to recommend a new design by 14 September. Voters will choose whether to approve or reject the design on their 3 November ballots.

In either case, any new flag design will not include the battle flag. But the commission’s decision must instead include “in God we trust”.

If the new design does not win a majority in that election, it will roll over to ballots in 2021.

Nearly 20 years ago, more than 60 per cent of Mississippi voters decided to uphold the current flag.

“The new design for the Mississippi state flag shall honour the past while embracing the promise of the future,” the bill reads.

While proponents mark the flag’s removal as a massive milestone against removing symbols of the Confederacy from public view, they also are calling on the state to address overwhelming racial disparities among black Mississippi residents. Nearly 40 per cent of the state’s population of 3 million people is black.

State representative Robert Johnson, who is black, said “now that the flag is out of the way” the state can attract desperately needed national attention to combat high rates of poverty and poor health outcomes among the state’s black residents.

The state’s Republican governor Tate Reeves made a stunning reversal on Saturday announcing that he would sign the legislation. He said that debate among lawmakers has “become as divisive as the flag itself” and that “it’s time to end it”.

“We should not be under any illusion that a vote in the Capitol is the end of what must be done – the job before us is to bring the state together and I intend to work day and night to do it,” he said.

Earlier this week, the governor called proposals to create a new flag would create a “separate but equal” option, outraging residents over his reference to a phrase that served as justification for legalised segregation.

He suggested that the flag should be removed following increasing pressure from several powerful organisations, including Walmart, which employs more than 20,000 people at its 65 stores in the state, as well as southern Baptists and the NCAA, which threatened to withdraw larger events including championship games from the state unless the flag was amended.

“For economic prosperity and a better future for my kid and yours, we must find a way to come together,” he said. “To heal our wounds, to forgive, to resolve that the page has turned, to trust each other.”

The Mississippi Baptist Convention Board (MBCB), the state’s largest religious congregation with more than 500,000 members and 2,100 churches, has called for a “change to the current flag in order to mitigate the hurt that its symbolism entails”.

“It has become apparent that the discussion about changing the state flag of Mississippi is not merely a political issue,” Shawn Parker, executive director and treasurer of the MBCB, announced at a press conference on Tuesday. “While some may see the current flag as a celebration of heritage, a significant portion of our state sees it as a relic of racism and a symbol of hate. The racial overtones of the flag’s appearance makes this discussion a moral issue.”

In the aftermath of the Civil War and dissolve of the Confederacy, Southern governments sought to undermine Reconstruction efforts, as relatives of the Confederates perpetuated the “Lost Cause” ideology through the erection of monuments and flying of the rebel banner to honour the veterans of the “war of northern aggression” while excising from history the central role of slavery to secession and white supremacist revolt.

Previous flag designs included a magnolia tree against a white background and a white star on a blue square, a reference to the Confederacy’s Blue Bonnie flag.

Debate over the flag persisted in the decades that followed, and integration efforts rekindled white supremacist violence under the banners of the Confederate and state flags.

Several legislative attempts in the 1980s and 1990s to consider removing the battle flag from the state flag were shot down without debate.

Following the murders of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina by a white supremacist in 2014, Mississippi’s public universities and several jurisdictions stopped flying the flag.

Officials across the state also have taken steps to remove the flag from city properties in lieu of statewide action.

“If you personally have an affiliation for the flag, then I don’t care whether you fly it in your own home,” Jackson’s progressive mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said this week, ”but don’t fly it over my children”.

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