Mississippi governor signs law for flag without rebel emblem

Mississippi Gov_ Tate Reeves has signed a bill that gives the state a new flag with a magnolia and the phrase, “In God We Trust.”

JACKSON, Miss. -- Mississippi hoisted a new state flag without the Confederate battle emblem on Monday, just over six months after legislators retired the last state banner in the U.S. that included the divisive rebel symbol.

The new flag has a magnolia and the phrase, “In God We Trust.” Voters approved the design in November, and Gov. Tate Reeves on Monday signed a law to make it an official state symbol.

“A new chapter in our history begins today,” one of the leaders in changing the flag, Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn, told more than 100 people who gathered in near-freezing weather to watch the new flag being raised outside the state Capitol.

Just before signing the law, Reeves said the old flag with the Confederate symbol was “a prominent roadblock to unity.”

“When many looked at our former flag, they just saw a symbol of the state and heritage they love. But many felt dismissed, diminished and even hated because of that flag,” Reeves said. “That is not a firm foundation for our state. So today, we turn the page.”

Momentum to change the Mississippi flag built quickly in June as protests against racial injustice were happening across the nation. Legislators created a commission to design a new flag, specifying that the banner could not include Confederate imagery and that it must include “In God We Trust.”

Reeves previously served as lieutenant governor, and he had said for years that if the old flag were to change, it should only be done by a statewide vote. He signed the bill retiring the old flag after legislators passed it by a veto-proof margin.

The public submitted more than 3,000 design proposals, and the commission chose one that has a magnolia blossom encircled by white stars representing Mississippi as the 20th state, plus a single gold star representing Native Americans. The gold star is made of diamond shapes that are significant to the Choctaw culture. The flag also has gold stripes representing the artistic heritage of state that has produced blues great B.B. King, and Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner.

The law retiring the old flag also specified that the commission's proposed new flag would go on the Nov. 3 ballot for a yes-or-no vote. The magnolia design was the only flag proposal on the ballot, and more than 71% of people who voted that day said yes.

Reeves said Monday of the new flag: “It is one small effort to unify, but it is done in good faith.”

The Confederate battle emblem — a red field topped by a blue X with 13 white stars — was put on the upper left corner of the Mississippi flag in 1894 by white supremacists in the state Legislature a generation after the South lost the Civil War. The flag was part of the backlash against political power that Black people had attained during Reconstruction. Critics had long said the flag was a racist symbol that failed to represent a state with the largest percentage of Black residents in the nation.

The Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups have waved the Confederate battle flag for decades. Georgia put the battle emblem prominently on its state flag in 1956, during a backlash to the civil rights movement, and that state removed the symbol from its banner in 2001.

Mississippi voters chose to keep the Confederate-themed flag during a 2001 election, but all of the state's public universities and several cities and counties stopped flying it in recent years. Several took it down after the June 2015 slayings of nine Black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The white man charged in the shooting deaths had previously posed, in photos published online, holding the Confederate battle flag.

Democratic former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove attended the bill signing Monday and said of the new flag: “It has emblems and a design that everyone can support.” Musgrove was in office during the 2001 election, and he advocated removing the Confederate battle emblem then. He lost his bid for reelection in 2003 when opponents put up signs with the slogan: “Keep the Flag. Change the Governor.”

Supporters of the Confederate-themed Mississippi flag are starting an initiative that seeks to put four flag designs on the statewide ballot for another vote — the 1894 flag, the magnolia flag, one designed by a Jackson artist as an alternative to the 1894 flag and one designed for the state's 2017 bicentennial. Getting that on the ballot is a long shot, though, because of the signature-gathering process that is made more challenging by the coronavirus pandemic.

A few dozen people demonstrated on the south steps of the Mississippi Capitol in support of reviving the old flag. Some also carried flags supporting President Donald Trump.

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