Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves on Tuesday signed the bill retiring the last state flag in the U.S. that featured the Confederate battle emblem, saying, “This is not a political moment to me but a solemn occasion to lead our Mississippi family to come together, to be reconciled, and to move on.”
State lawmakers had approved the measure over the weekend before sending the bill to the Republican governor’s desk for his signature.
Though a source of division for generations, Mississippi’s flag has come under renewed scrutiny amid nationwide protests against racial injustice that have focused attention on Confederate symbols.
A broad coalition of legislators on Sunday passed the landmark legislation to change the flag, capping a weekend of emotional debate and decades of effort by black lawmakers and others who saw the rebel emblem as a symbol of hatred.
White supremacist legislators were said to have put the Confederate battle emblem on the upper-left corner of the Mississippi flag in 1894 as a reaction to the gains made by African-Americans after the Civil War.
Mississippi voters chose to keep the flag in a 2001 statewide election, with supporters saying they saw it as a symbol of Southern heritage. Since then, a growing number of cities and all the state’s public universities have abandoned it.
Several black legislators, and a few white lawmakers, pushed for years to change it. After a white gunman who had posed with the Confederate flag killed black worshipers at a South Carolina church in 2015, Mississippi’s Republican speaker of the House, Philip Gunn, said his religious faith compelled him to say that Mississippi must purge the symbol from its flag.
The issue was still broadly considered too volatile for legislators to touch, until the police custody death of an African-American man in Minneapolis, George Floyd, set off weeks of protests, followed by calls to take down Confederate symbols.
Now, a commission is set to design a new flag, one that cannot include the Confederate symbol and 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 draft a different design using the same guidelines, to be sent to voters later.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.