JACKSON • With a pair of Sunday afternoon votes capping off weeks of tense expectation and speculation, the Mississippi Legislature has now approved a bill to replace the state’s flag and only the governor’s action awaits before a banner first adopted in 1894 is furled.
Following a vote by the state House, the state Senate took the matter up in short order with a majority of both chambers backing legislation to retire the current flag and commission the design of a new flag to go before voters in a ballot referendum this November.
In the Senate, the legislation passed by a vote of 37 to 14. That followed an earlier vote in the House of 92 to 23.
In both chambers, the vote in favor of the legislation prevailed by a wider margin than did a Saturday vote required to suspend the rules and bring up the flag bill late in the session.
Before the House vote, Northeast Mississippi’s Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, announced he was one of those who would support the bill after previously voting on Saturday to fulfill past campaign promises.
Turner expressed hope that the bill will initiate “a destiny called unity” for the state.
“This has been something most of us have had to wrestle with over the years,” Turner said. “It’s been a long haul.”
Across the two chambers, Turner wasn’t the only legislator from Northeast Mississippi to vote differently on Saturday than on Sunday.
Rep. Tracy Arnold, R-Booneville, voted against the suspension of the rules on Saturday but in favor of the flag legislation on Sunday. Rep. Chris Brown, R-Nettleton, voted against the suspension on Saturday but did not vote Sunday.
In the Senate, Sen. Rita Potts Parks, R-Corinth, voted in favor of the suspension Saturday but did not vote Sunday. Sen. Ben Suber, R-Bruce, voted against the suspension on Saturday but in favor of the bill on Sunday.
The bill now proceeds to the desk of Gov. Tate Reeves. On Saturday morning, the Republican governor dropped his longstanding resistance to any legislative-initiated change of the flag and said he would sign a bill to retire the current flag and initiate the adoption of a new one.
The weight of the moment hung heavy and was openly acknowledged as lawmakers spoke on the legislation.
Speaking in support of the bill, Sen. Derrick Simmons, a Black Democrat from the Delta invoked the legacy of his family and called for “a symbol of love, not hate, a symbol of unity not division, a symbol that represents all Mississippians, not some.”
He also cast the actions of the legislature as oriented toward the future.
“I ask you, each of you, as we recognize the Mississippi of yesterday, let’s vote today for the Mississippi of tomorrow,” Simmons said.
Thought of the future also marked the remarks of another Black lawmaker, Democrat Sen. John Horhn, who has been in the legislature since 1993.
“Today’s vote is not a vote to erase Mississippi’s history, or its heritage,” Horhn said. “It’s an affirmation of Mississippi’s future, and that we intend to move forward together.”
On the heels of a vote that looks to have settled one long-contentious chapter in Mississippi’s political history, former Gov. William Winter applauded lawmakers for making reality a change he himself fought for in advance of a 2001 vote.
“Removal of the Confederate battle flag from our state flag is long overdue,” Winter said. “I congratulate the Mississippi Legislature on their decisive action today removing this divisive symbol. Along with many committed Mississippians, 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. I’m especially grateful at age 97 to witness this step forward by the state I love.”
Among the most esteemed of Mississippi’s former governors, Winter held office from 1980 to 1984 and is known and regarded for his education reforms as well as his ongoing efforts to promote racial harmony.
The former governor also expressed hope that the removal of the current state flag will further the goals of progress for the state.
“Of equal importance, I hope this may spark further action to meet the compelling social and economic needs of our state,” Winter said. “The battle for a better Mississippi does not end with the removal of the flag and we should work in concert to make other positive changes in the interest of all of our people.”
Following the final vote Sunday, Winter was joined in celebration by some other state political leaders, activists, university heads, athletic and business figures and others who have called for change in the state’s flag.
The legislation approved Sunday would create a nine-member commission to propose a new flag design to go before voters in November. Three commission voters would be appointed by the governor, three by the lieutenant governor and three by the speaker of the house.
Of the governor’s appointments, one must represent the Mississippi Economic Council, one the Mississippi Arts Commission and one the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Voters in November will then either approve the new design or reject it. If the new design is rejected, the commission will go back to work to produce another design for consideration.
Once the governor signs the bill, the current flag will stand repealed and current flags must be removed from government properties within 15 days, with the state Department of Archives and History developing a process for doing so.
Mississippi would then have no state flag until the voters adopt a new design and the legislature formally moves to adopt that new design.
On Saturday, the House and Senate both voted to suspend their legislative rules, allowing a new bill to be brought up for consideration even after the normal deadlines had elapsed.
That rules suspension required a two-thirds majority vote. Only a simple majority was required in the House and Senate for the approval of the actual legislation which will initiate the replacement of the flag.
Mississippi is the last state in the country to incorporate the so-called Confederate battle emblem within its state flag, and the banner has long been a flashpoint for division, controversy and rancor as opponents and supporters have contended over the meaning and impact of the flag’s presence within the state and beyond its borders.