JACKSON • With a few pen strokes, the last state in the country to emblazon on its flag the battle emblem of the Confederacy has furled its banners.
On Tuesday evening, in a private ceremony attended by his family, a handful of legislative leaders and a few dignitaries, Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, signed into law a bill to remove the state flag and initiate its replacement.
“A flag is a symbol of our present, of our people, and of our future,” Reeves said in an address. “For those reasons, we need a new symbol.”
From the great river on its west coast to the Alabama line in the east, from the hills of northern Mississippi to the sandy beaches of the Coast, Mississippi will have no state flag at least until sometime next year.
A nine-member commission – with members appointed in equal number by the speaker of the house, the lieutenant governor and the governor – will form sometime in July and will face an ambitious task to be handled quickly. The commission must select a single new flag design, using whatever means it finds appropriate, and recommend this flag for the consideration of voters in November. The new design must contain the words “In God We Trust.
If voters approve the new design, the legislature will adopt it sometime in early 2021. If voters reject the new design, the commission will go to work selecting a new design.
Until such time as a new flag is adopted, Mississippi’s flagpoles will be empty of a banner that has flown since 1894 and has for decades been a focal point for controversy, anger and pitched debate over the meaning and impact of Mississippi’s burdened history.
The imprint of that history was evident in the remarks offered by Reeves, who is not yet halfway through the first year of his first term of office.
“I can admit that as young boy growing up in Florence, I couldn’t have understood the pain that some of our neighbors felt when they looked at our flag – a pain that made many feel unwelcome and unwanted,” Reeves said, speaking from a podium at the governor’s mansion. “Today, I hear their hurt. It sounds different than the outrage we see on cable TV in other places. It sounds like Mississippians, our friends and our neighbors, asking to be understood.”
The first-term Republican governor acknowledged that his actions Tuesday night involved a change of mind. Reeves has long opposed any effort by the legislature to change the state flag.
In his time leading the state Senate as lieutenant governor, Reeves differed on this matter from Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, who became the most prominent GOP official in 2015 to call for the flag’s removal.
For years, as well as in his campaign last year and in comments only a few weeks ago, Reeves has consistently stated the view that the flag should only be changed by a ballot referendum.
Following weeks of new debate and anticipation that the legislature might act, Reeves finally reversed himself on Saturday. He pledged to sign a flag change bill if the legislature sent him one. A few hours later, the legislature cleared a key procedural hurdle and then on Sunday approved a flag change with a veto-proof majority.
Looking to the future and to the new flag that will eventually fly, Reeves expressed hope that those who welcome the retirement of the 1894 flag and those who are angered by it can find common cause in the words that flag will contain.
“The people of Mississippi, black and white, and young and old, can be proud of a banner that puts our faith front and center,” Reeves said. “We can unite under it. We can move forward, together.”