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Members of the Jones County Rosin Heels, Camp 227, Sons of Confederate Veterans, at a Confederate Memorial Day ceremony at the Jones County courthouse in Ellisville last May. (File photo by Mark Thornton)

Legislators voted on Sunday to remove the Mississippi state flag, the last in the nation featuring the Confederate battle emblem, more than 126 years after it was adopted.

The House and Senate passed a bill on Sunday that will immediately remove the state flag, and Gov. Tate Reeves said he would sign the bill into law. A nine-person commission will be appointed to develop a single new design by September, and Mississippi voters will approve or reject that design on the November ballot. In the meantime, Mississippi will have no official state flag.

The historic vote brought tears to the eyes of many lawmakers. Cheers echoed in the halls of the Capitol shortly after the final votes were cast, and many Mississippians who visited the building to witness the moment openly wept.

“We are better today than we were yesterday,” said Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, who authored the bill that passed on Sunday. “Today, the future has taken root in the present. Today, we and the rest of the nation can look on our state with new eyes, with pride and hope.

“We are not betraying our heritage,” Gunn continued. “We are fulfilling it.”

The flag, long a point of political contention in Mis- sissippi, was seen by many as a symbol of hate. In 2001, Mississippi voters decided nearly 2-to-1 to keep the emblem on the state flag, solidifying its place on the official state banner for nearly two decades. For years, support- ers of changing the flag have not been able to garner the simple majority needed to change the controversial banner through the normal legislative process.

But the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked nationwide protests that reached Mississippi and again brought attention to the state flag. In recent weeks, pressure mounted from religious, business, civic, university, sports and other leaders to change the flag.

A growing list of cities — including Laurel — businesses, counties and other groups either stopped flying the flag or asked leaders to change it.

The Senate debate on Sunday lasted about two hours, with several sena- tors arguing that the issue should go to voters instead of being made by lawmakers. Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, was leading the charge to let the voters decide. Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, and Reps. Mark Tullos, R-Raleigh, and Shane Barnett, R-Wayne County, also wanted to let voters choose. Several senators rebutted that argument before passing the bill. Sen. Juan Barnett, D-Heidelberg, and local Reps. Donnie Scoggin, R-Ellisville, and Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, voted to change the flag. Scott suggested an amendment to name the flag-change act for Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill, who said he wouldn’t represent the state going forward if the flag wasn’t changed. Her motion was tabled.

“I think the Mississippi Senate and me personally, we want Mississippi to have a heart and a soul,” Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said after the vote. “Today she had one.”

The House approved the bill by a vote of 92-23 on Sunday, with eight more House members voting to approve the final bill than they did on a procedural vote on Saturday. The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 37-14, with one more Senate member voting to approve than on Saturday.

Many prominent Mississippians expressed their appreciation.

“Removal of the Confed- erate battle flag from our state flag is long overdue,” former Gov. William Win- ter said in a statement. “I congratulate the Mississippi Legislature on their decisive action today removing this divisive symbol. Along with many committed Mis- sissippians, I have fought for decades to change the flag, most notably during the flag referendum 20 years ago.

“I’m delighted by this positive move,” Winter continued. “I’m especially grateful at age 97 to witness this step forward by the state I love.”

Now attention will turn to the next steps in the process of developing a new state flag. The new design “will not include the Con- federate battle flag but shall include the words ‘In God We Trust’,” the bill passed on Sunday reads. Should voters reject that design in November, the commission would present a new option during the 2021 legislative session, according to the resolution.

Reeves, Hosemann and Gunn will appoint three people each to the commis- sion. The governor’s three appointees must be representatives from the Mississippi Economic Council, the Mississippi Arts Commission and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Hosemann and Gunn face no specific commission appointment requirements.

The Mississippi Department of Archives and History will have up to 15 days after Reeves signs the bill into law to officially retire the current state flag.

“All eyes are on Mississippi, and today, we have made a historic decision,” said Sen. Angela Turner Ford, chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus. “Today we mark a transition for Mississippi, a day where we can be proud to move forward to adopt a symbol that is inclusive, a symbol that all of us can rally behind ... We’ve made a decision to move forward, and I hope Mississippians are proud of that decision.”

— From Mississippi Today

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