(CN) — Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves on Tuesday signed a bill officially retiring the Confederate symbol that has been sewed onto the state flag for 126 years, a measure he said was important to ensure every citizen knows they are equally valued in the state.
The Republican governor said the removal of the symbol from the state flag would ensure all residents that “their state recognizes the equal dignity and honor that they possess as a child of the South.”
“There is a difference between monuments and flags,” Reeves said just before signing the bill into law. “A monument acknowledges and honors our past, a flag is a symbol of our present, of our people, and of our future. For those reasons, we need a new symbol.”
A majority of the Republican-controlled Mississippi Legislature passed a historic measure to change the state flag on Sunday. The bill calls for a commission to redesign a new state flag that must have the words “In God We Trust,” and without the Confederate symbol by Sept. 14.
A final design will be voted on in the November general elections. If voters reject the design, the commission would be tasked with introducing a new flag design to the Legislature during the 2021 session.
Calls for racial justice and police reform sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police officers in May, have led to the removal of Confederate monuments nationwide.
Before Tuesday’s signing ceremony, Mississippi was the only state in the nation to still have the Confederate battle emblem on its flag. The symbol stirs deep emotions among many blacks who associate it with white supremacist groups.
Attempts to change the state flag in the Legislature have failed since at least 1988, according to the Mississippi Historical Society. Legal challenges have also failed.
The state Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a 1993 lawsuit brought by the Mississippi NAACP seeking to axe any further displays or expenditures of state funds on the state flag, finding that it “does not deprive any citizen of any constitutionally protected right.”
But Reeves, who is serving his first term as governor, said Tuesday the time had now come “to turn a page in Mississippi by retiring the flag that we have flown since 1894.”
“This is not a political moment to me but a solemn occasion to lead our Mississippi family to come together, to be reconciled and to move on,” he said. “We are all Mississippians and we must all come together. What better way to do that than to include ‘In God We Trust’ on our new state banner?”
The bill saw unusually rapid passage after legislators voted to suspend the rules over the weekend, allowing for debate and a full vote by both chambers on Sunday. The flag was removed from the state Capitol in Jackson following the landmark vote.
All flags on government property must come down within 15 days now that the bill has been signed into law.