By IVAN PEREIRA, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — It may be just a magnolia, but for many Mississippians, it is a symbol of a long-awaited reckoning with their state’s history.
On Election Day, nearly 73% of state residents voted to change the state flag, which previously had Confederate imagery, to one that is blue, yellow and red, with the state flower in the center and the words “In God we trust.” The vote caps years of calls from Mississippi’s Black community and other groups to end the state’s attachment to its Civil War era.
Those calls grew louder — and more bipartisan — this year, following the protests after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, according to Don Shaffer, a professor and the director of African American Studies at Mississippi State University.
“I think it’s already starting to indicate that changes are beginning to happen,” he told ABC News about the flag change. “The way people talk about our state is changing. Symbols matter.”
In June, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves signed a bill that removed the 126-year-old flag and created a commission to come up with a new design that would be approved by voters. The commission released its design in September, and voters were asked to approve it in a ballot question.
Reeves, state Democrats and state Republicans were in agreement that this move was in the state’s best interest.
“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,” Reeves said at a news conference before the bill signing in June.
Shaffer said various groups and organizations, including Mississippi State University and the NAACP, have called for the older flag to be removed for a long time. In 2001, a ballot initiative that would have removed the flag failed to get enough votes to pass.
This time was different, according to Shaffer, because of the national conversation and protests over the summer. The professor said the calls to remove symbols and statues related to the Confederacy spoke to more residents, especially younger ones, from all backgrounds.
“It was the willingness of Mississippians, both Black and white, who went out, took to the streets and protested peacefully about these issues that brought the momentum,” Shaffer said.
He noted that big-name Mississippi figures, such as Mississippi State football head coach Mike Leach and University of Mississippi football head coach Lane Kiffin, publicly endorsed the change. Mississippi native Faith Hill also pushed for the flag to be removed calling the old flag “a direct symbol of terror for our Black brothers and sisters.”
“You saw people you wouldn’t normally see demanding change,” Shaffer said. “We were getting allies from places and corners we weren’t accustomed to seeing.”
While Shaffer noted over 27% of voters did not approve the new state flag, he predicted more people will come around when they see the benefits.
Removing the flag’s Confederate connotation could attract new businesses, along with new people and economic benefits, according to Shaffer. Amazon announced on Nov. 12 it will open a new fulfillment center in Madison County that will employ 1,000 residents, according to the Madison County Development Authority.
“So the way you convince those people who are not convinced is to show all of the positive changes that are occurring,” Shaffer said. “The practical kinds of changes that will occur as a result of the flag decision will be impactful.”
Ultimately, Shaffer said he believes the new flag will be the jumping-off point for much-needed conversations about the state’s history, particularly in regards to experiences of the Black community. He predicted that Mississippians of all backgrounds will be ready to move forward.
“Now that we’ve changed the symbolism, we have to cash in on the unity that this gesture signifies,” he said.
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