Mississippi will retire the last state flag in the U.S. with the Confederate battle emblem, more than a century after white supremacist legislators adopted the design a generation after the South lost the Civil War.
A broad coalition of lawmakers — Black and white, Democrat and Republican — voted Sunday for change as the state faced increasing pressure amid nationwide protests against racial injustice.
Mississippi has a 38% Black population, and critics have said for generations that it’s wrong to have a flag that prominently features an emblem many condemn as racist.
Democratic Sen. David Jordan told his colleagues just before the vote that Mississippi needs a flag that unifies rather than divides.
“Let’s do this because it’s the right thing to do,” Jordan said. The Senate voted 37-14 to retire the flag, hours after the House 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.
Republican Gov. Tate Reeves is expected to sign the bill into law in the next few days.
Democratic Rep. Robert Johnson of Natchez 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 will 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.
Republican 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.
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 recent years. But until now, efforts to redesign the flag sputtered in the Republican-dominated Legislature.