BILOXI, Miss. — Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves signed a bill Tuesday that will retire the Mississippi state flag with the Confederate emblem after 126 years.

It was a historic moment for the state and a dramatic change for Reeves, who on Saturday announced he would sign a bill that received veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate on Sunday.

People could be heard cheering outside the signing ceremony, and there was loud applause in the room after Reeves announced the bill had become law.

“Over the last several weeks, I have repeatedly heard it said that we must have change because the eyes of the nation were on Mississippi. Frankly, I’m not all that concerned about the eyes of the nation,” Reeves said. “I do care, however, about looking in the eyes of every one of my neighbors and making sure they know that their state recognizes the equal dignity and honor they possess as a child of the South, a child of Mississippi, and yes — as a child of an Almighty God.”

For years, Reeves had said the state flag should only be changed through a vote by all Mississippians. He recently pledged that he would stick to the position he held during last year’s campaign for governor, saying that a removal of the flag by the Legislature would “seriously, seriously upset Mississippians. And quite justifiably so.”

“I’ve long believed the better path towards reconciliation for our state would be for the people to retire this symbol on their own at the ballot box,” Reeves said Tuesday. “And I believe we would have eventually chosen that outcome — a deliberate consensus by a thoughtful people.

“I am not a man who likes to change his mind. But through prison riots, Easter tornadoes, a pandemic the likes of which we haven’t seen in over 100 years, and now this flag fight, all in just a few months, I have taken to replacing sleeping with praying.”

Reeves said he ultimately changed his behind because he feared more division would hinder the state’s efforts to battle the COVID-19 pandemic and deal with economic struggles.

“Last week, as the Legislature deadlocked, the fight intensified, and I looked down the barrel of months of more division — I knew that our path forward was to end this battle now,” he said.

The state flag that features the Confederate emblem was officially adopted by Mississippi voters in 2001, rejecting a new design with over 64.39% of the vote.

Reeves’ signing of the bill means the flag must be removed from government buildings across the state within 15 days.

A nine-person commission will be appointed by Reeves, House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann to develop a flag that will be placed on the ballot for the Nov. 3 vote.

The new flag cannot include the Confederate emblem and must feature the words, “In God We Trust.”

“We are all Mississippians and we must all come together,” Reeves said. “What better way to do that than include ‘In God We Trust’ on our new state banner. As lieutenant governor, I fought to put those words on our state seal. We were attacked, threatened, and ultimately we were sued. I know the same forces will come after us again and I know this is a stronger line to hold.

“The people of Mississippi, Black and white, and young and old, can be proud of a banner that puts our faith front and center. We can unite under it. We can move forward together.”

If voters don’t approve the new flag, the commission will produce another banner design that will be put before the voters in November 2021.

The state flag has been a source of racial division since it was first created in 1894. The Confederate emblem has been co-opted by hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, making it a toxic symbol nationwide.

There was some momentum behind changing the flag in 2015 after a white supremacist, Dylann Roof, shot and killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. Roof had posed for pictures with the Confederate flag.

Both of Mississippi’s U.S. senators at the time, Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran, came out in support of changing the state flag. They were joined by Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn, who was key in leading the most recent effort to take down the flag.

On Tuesday, Wicker celebrated the governor’s signing of the bill.

“This is a historic and long-awaited day for Mississippi,” the senator said in a statement. “I appreciate our state legislators for having the courage and conviction to make this necessary change to our state flag. As I have maintained since 2015, Mississippians deserve a banner that unites us rather than divides us. I hope the process outlined in the law will produce a new design for the state flag that can make us all proud.”

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©2020 The Sun Herald (Biloxi, Miss.)

Visit The Sun Herald (Biloxi, Miss.) at www.sunherald.com

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PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): MISS-STATEFLAG

Copyright 2020 Tribune Content Agency.

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