Winds of change: Mississippi rebel-themed flag fading away
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The Mississippi flag is fading from public display in many places, even before the governor signs a bill that will retire the last state banner in the U.S. that includes the Confederate battle emblem.
A broad coalition of legislators passed the landmark bill Sunday after a weekend of emotional debate. On Monday, a U.S. flag fluttered outside the state Supreme Court building and a pole for the state flag stood vacant. Several local governments also furled the 126-year-old state banner.
“In the middle of a pandemic, we — the legislators of the state of Mississippi — decided that it was past time to remove the flag,” Democratic state Rep. Oscar Denton of Vicksburg said Monday as he stood on the Capitol steps with other Legislative Black Caucus members.
Widespread protests in the past month have focused attention on racial injustice in the U.S., and Mississippi came under increasing pressure to surrender the flag that has the Confederate emblem — a red field topped by a blue X with 13 white stars.
A few supporters of the flag marched outside the Mississippi Capitol with it Saturday and Sunday. Inside the building, dozens of spectators cheered and some wept with happiness after legislators voted to change the flag. Senators on opposite sides of the issue embraced.
Republican Gov. Tate Reeves is expected to sign the flag bill this week, and the banner will be removed from state law. It still flew Monday on two poles atop the Capitol, signaling that the House and Senate were working.
White supremacist legislators put the Confederate emblem on the upper-left corner of the Mississippi flag in 1894, as white people were squelching political power that African Americans had gained after the Civil War. The Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups have used the rebel emblem, and critics have said for generations that it’s wrong for a state with a 38% Black population to have the image on its flag.
In a 2001 statewide election, Mississippi voters chose to keep the flag, with supporters saying they see it as a symbol of heritage. But, a growing number of cities and all the state’s public universities have abandoned it in recent years because of the Confederate image.
Several Black legislators, and a few white ones, have pushed for decades to change the flag. After a white gunman killed Black worshippers at a South Carolina church in 2015, Mississippi's Republican speaker of the House, Philip Gunn, said his own religious faith compelled him to say that Mississippi must purge the Confederate symbol from its flag.
Until recently, though, the flag issue was broadly considered too volatile for legislators to touch. In recent weeks, as Confederate monuments and other symbols were being removed in parts of the U.S. amid widespread protests over racial injustice, a groundswell of leaders from business, religion, education and sports called on Mississippi to change the flag. That provided the momentum that led legislators to vote.
“This battle is one that has been fought uphill,” the Black Caucus chairwoman, Democratic Sen. Angela Turner Ford, said Monday. A commission will design a new Mississippi 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.
President Donald Trump has criticized the removal of monuments, including those for the Confederacy. Monday in Washington, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany was asked about Mississippi taking steps to remove the Confederate emblem from the state flag.
“That’s a decision for Mississippi to make, and it’s commendable that they took this action in a lawful matter and took the appropriate steps rather than trying to tear down statues and monuments,” McEnany said.
Associated Press writer Kevin Freking in Washington contributed to this report. Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.