Mississippi voted to change the state flag, which includes a Confederate battle emblem that has been widely condemned as racist.
Mississippi became the last state in the US with a flag displaying the confederate image – a red field topped by a blue “X” with 13 white stars – after Georgia voted to remove the symbol from its flag in 2003.
The bill to remove the symbol passed both the lower and upper houses at the weekend with legislators backing a panel to design a new flag.
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’s governor said he would sign the bill into law if it cleared the legislature.
“We are better today than we were yesterday,” Mississippi Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, who authored the bill told the non-profit news group Mississippi Today.
“Today, the future has taken root in the present. Today, we and the rest of the nation can look at our state with new eyes, with pride and hope.”
The Confederate battle emblem was used by southern troops during the 1861-1865 American Civil War and for many remains a symbol of the country’s legacy of slavery.
White supremacists in the Mississippi Legislature decided on the state flag design in 1894 in a backlash to the political power that African Americans gained after the Civil War.
The state flag has been divisive for generations; none of the state’s public universities displays it, while a growing number of cities and counties have also stopped flying the state flag.
Supporters, however, have resisted efforts to change the design for decades, saying it is a significant part of southern US history and culture. In 2001, state residents overwhelmingly voted to keep the current design.
Tides have changed in the years since, accelerating in recent weeks as protests against racial injustice spread across the US, including Mississippi, following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota in late May.
Leaders from business, religion, education and sport have spoken forcefully against the state flag, urging legislators to ditch the 126-year-old banner for one that better reflects the diversity of a state with a 38 percent Black population.
Republican Governor Tate Reeves said for the first time on Saturday for that he would sign a bill to change the flag if the Republican-controlled Legislature sends him one.
“The argument over the 1894 flag has become as divisive as the flag itself and it’s time to end it. If they send me a bill this weekend, I will sign it,” he said.
The legislature has been deadlocked for days as it considers a new state flag. The argument over the 1894 flag has become as divisive as the flag itself and it’s time to end it.
If they send me a bill this weekend, I will sign it. pic.twitter.com/bf3vyzuObt
— Tate Reeves (@tatereeves) June 27, 2020
Once passed, the commission will design a new flag that cannot include the Confederate symbol and that must have the words “In God We Trust”, according to the bill.
The new design will be put on the ballot during elections on November 3. Only one design choice will be offered. If a majority of voters accept the new design, it will become the state flag. If a majority reject it, the commission will design a new flag using the same guidelines.
The move comes as jurisdictions, institutions and corporations in the US have been reckoning with their history, with many removing confederate monuments, racially fraught imagery or racist namesakes.
Princeton University on Saturday announced it was removing the name of President Woodrow Wilson from its school of public policy and a residential college, saying the former US leader was a racist.
Wilson served two terms as US president, from 1913 to 1921. He was the founder of the League of Nations, a forerunner of the United Nations, and embodied the end of American isolationism.
But the 28th US president also supported racist policies, notably allowing segregation in federal agencies even after they had been racially integrated for decades.
“He not only acquiesced in, but added to the persistent practice of racism in this country, a practice that continues to do harm today,” university President Christopher Eisgruber said in a statement.