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Wednesday July 15th, 2020 12:54AM

Mississippi lawmakers vote to remove rebel emblem from flag

By The Associated Press
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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi lawmakers voted Sunday to surrender the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag more than a century after white supremacist legislators adopted the design a generation after the South lost the Civil War.

Spectators in the Capitol cheered and applauded after the votes in the House and Senate.

Each chamber had broad bipartisan support for the historic decision. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves has said he will sign the bill, and the state flag will lose its official status as soon as he does. That could happen in the next few days.

Mississippi has faced mounting pressure to change its flag during the past month amid international protests against racial injustice in the United States.

After the vote, legislators embraced each other. Even those on the opposite side of the issue also hugged as an emotional day of debate drew to a close.

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 will be asked to approve the new design in the Nov. 3 election. If they reject it, the commission will set a different design using the same guidelines, and that would be sent to voters later.

Mississippi has a 38% Black population — and the last state flag that incorporates the emblem that’s widely seen as racist.

Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn, who is white, has pushed for five years to change the flag, saying that the Confederate symbol is offensive. The House passed the bill 91-23 Sunday afternoon. Within hours, the Senate followed suit, 37-14.

“How sweet it is to celebrate this on the Lord’s day,” Gunn said. "Many prayed to Him to bring us to this day. He has answered.”

Debate over changing the flag has arisen before, and in recent years an increasing number of cities and all the state’s public universities have taken it down on their own. But the issue has never garnered enough support in the conservative Republican-dominated Legislature or with recent governors.

That dynamic shifted in a matter of weeks as an extraordinary and diverse coalition of political, business, religious groups and sports leaders pushed to change the flag.

At a Black Lives Matter protest outside the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion in early June, thousands cheered as an organizer said the state needs to divorce itself from all Confederate symbols.

Religious groups — including the large and influential Mississippi Baptist Convention — said erasing the rebel emblem from the state flag is a moral imperative.

Business groups said the banner hinders economic development in one of the poorest states in the nation.

In a sports-crazy culture, the biggest blow might have happened when college sports leagues said Mississippi could lose postseason events if it continued flying the Confederate-themed flag. Nearly four dozen of Mississippi’s university athletic directors and coaches came to the Capitol to lobby for change.

Many people who wanted to keep the emblem on the Mississippi flag said they see it as a symbol of heritage.

Legislators put the Confederate emblem on the upper left corner of Mississippi flag in 1894, as whites were squelching political power that African Americans gained after the Civil War.

The battle emblem is a red field topped by a blue X with 13 white stars. The Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups have waved the rebel flag for decades. Georgia put the battle emblem prominently on its state flag in 1956, during a backlash to the civil rights movement. That state removed the symbol from its banner in 2001.

The Mississippi Supreme Court found in 2000 that when the state updated its laws in 1906, portions dealing with the flag were not included. That meant the banner lacked official status. The Democratic governor in 2000, Ronnie Musgrove, appointed a commission to decide the flag’s future. It held hearings across the state that grew ugly as people shouted at each other about the flag.

After that, legislators opted not to set a flag design themselves. They put the issue on a 2001 statewide ballot, and people voted to keep the flag. An alternate proposal would have replaced the Confederate corner with a blue field topped by a cluster of white stars representing Mississippi as the 20th state.

Democratic state Sen. Derrick Simmons of Greenville, who is African American, said the state deserves a flag that will make all people proud.

“Today is a history-making day in the state of Mississippi,” Simmons told colleagues. “Let’s vote today for the Mississippi of tomorrow.”

___

Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.

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