Mississippi is to retire the last state flag in the US with the Confederate battle emblem, more than a century after white supremacist legislators adopted the design a generation after the South lost the US Civil War.
A broad coalition of lawmakers — black and white, Democrat and Republican — on Sunday voted for change as the state faced increasing pressure amid nationwide protests against racial injustice.
Mississippi has a 38 percent black population, and critics have said for generations that it is wrong to have a flag that prominently features an emblem many condemn as racist.
Democratic Mississippi Senator David Jordan told his colleagues just before the vote that the state needs a flag that unifies rather than divides.
The state Senate voted 37-14 to retire the flag, hours after the state House of Representatives voted 91-23.
Cheers rang out in the state Capitol after the Senate vote. Some spectators wept. Legislators embraced each other, many hugging colleagues who were on the opposing side of an issue that has long divided the tradition-bound state.
Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves is expected to sign the bill into law in the next few days.
Democratic state Representative Robert Johnson choked back tears as he told reporters that he has seen white colleagues develop more empathy about how the Confederate symbol is painful to him and other African-Americans.
“They began to understand and feel the same thing that I’ve been feeling for 61 years of my life,” Johnson said.
A commission is to design a new flag that cannot include the Confederate symbol and that must have the words “In God We Trust.”
Voters would be asked to approve the new design in the Nov. 3 election. If they reject it, the commission would set a different design using the same guidelines, and that would be sent to voters later.
Republican state House Speaker Philip Gunn, who is white, has pushed for five years to change the flag, saying the Confederate symbol is offensive.
“How sweet it is to celebrate this on the Lord’s day,” Gunn said.
State legislators put the Confederate emblem on the upper left corner of Mississippi flag in 1894, as white people were squelching political power that African-Americans had gained after the Civil War.
In a 2001 statewide election, voters chose to keep the flag. An increasing number of cities and all Mississippi’s public universities have taken down the state flag in the past few years.
However, until now, efforts to redesign the flag sputtered in the Republican-dominated state legislature.
That dynamic shifted as an extraordinary and diverse coalition of political, business and religious groups, and sports leaders pushed for change.
Religious groups said erasing the rebel emblem from the state flag is a moral imperative.
Notable among them was the state’s largest church group, the 500,000-member Mississippi Baptist Convention, which called for change last week after not pushing for it before the 2001 election.
Business groups said the banner hinders economic development in one of the poorest states in the nation.
Many people who wanted to keep the emblem on the Mississippi flag said they see it as a symbol of heritage.
The battle emblem is a red field topped by a blue cross with 13 white stars. The Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups have waved the rebel flag for decades.
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