Lawmakers in Mississippi voted Sunday to remove the Confederate battle standard from the state flag, after nationwide protests drew renewed attention to symbols of the United States' racist past.
The measure passed with a 91-23 majority vote in the House of Representatives, triggering cheers in the Senate gallery. A few hours later, the Senate voted 37-14 for the bill.
Democratic senator John Horhn said changing the flag was a "big step... in the journey we are on to recognize everybody's God-given humanity and self-worth."
Senators celebrated with cheers, hugs and fist-bumps.
Mississippi is the only American state to incorporate the Confederate standard on its official flag, after nearby Georgia dropped it in 2003.
The criss-crossed diagonal stars pattern was used by southern troops, including Mississippians, during the 1861-1865 American Civil War -- the bloody conflict that brought an end to slavery -- and for many it remains a symbol of the country's dark racial legacy.
The bill calls for a nine-member commission to design a new flag that does not use the Confederate standard and does include the phrase "In God, We Trust."
State residents would vote on the design in November. If they reject the new design, Mississippi will go without a state flag until a new design is approved.
Votes in both houses of the state's legislature followed weeks of mounting pressure and hours of impassioned debate.
"This is an opportunity for us to find a flag that’s unifying for all Mississippians, and that's what we’re going to do," House speaker Philip Gunn, a Republican, told cheering legislators, the Clarion Ledger newspaper reported.
Governor Tate Reeves, who had sought to side-step the debate, said Saturday that he would sign the bill into law.
Racial injustice has been the subject of a renewed and fiery national conversation in the US since the death in May of unarmed African-American man George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer.
His death ignited mass protests and civil unrest across the country that has also led to the destruction of statues of former Confederate military leaders.
'Symbol of terror'
Mississippi in 2001 voted overwhelmingly to retain its current flag, hailed by its defenders as a proud symbol of southern heritage and history.
"I know that when you walk into this building every day... I would guess that a lot don't even see that flag in the right corner up there," Edward Blackman, an African-American Democratic lawmaker, told colleagues during the debate Saturday.
"There's some of us who notice it every time we walk in here, and it's not a good feeling," he added.
The push to change the flag has grown dramatically in the past week. A star Mississippi State University football player tweeted, "Either change the flag or I won't be representing this State anymore."
"I meant that," senior running back Kylin Hill, who is African-American, added. "I'm tired."
The day after Hill's tweet, the powerful Mississippi Baptist Convention, an association of the state's Baptist churches, called to change the flag's design.
As a groundswell of support grew, they were soon joined by state associations of real estate agents, bankers, educators and manufacturers.
Athletic directors and coaches from Mississippi universities have also urged lawmakers to act.
"I understand many view the current flag as a symbol of heritage and Southern pride," country music star Faith Hill, a Mississippi native, tweeted. "But we have to realize that this flag is a direct symbol of terror for our black brothers and sisters."
But Governor Reeves warned Saturday that changing the flag would not end racism or end divisions in his state.
Bringing the state together, he wrote on Twitter, “will be harder than recovering from tornadoes, harder than historic floods... even harder than battling the Coronavirus.”
With debate raging across the US, NASCAR this month banned the display of the Confederate flag at its car racing events. The flag had previously been a common sight at races, particularly in its southern US heartland.
"No one should feel uncomfortable when they come to a NASCAR race. So it starts with Confederate flags. Get them out of here. They have no place for them," said trailblazing African-American NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace.
Protesters have also begun tearing down statues of Confederate generals and pro-slavery leaders, prompting harsh criticism and threats of prosecution from President Donald Trump.
But some cities have opted to reevaluate and remove controversial statues. New York City is to remove a statue of former president Theodore Roosevelt, long criticised as a racist and colonialist symbol.
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