(CN) — Mississippians on Tuesday overwhelming approved a new state flag design featuring the magnolia flower to replace the 126-year-old Confederate-themed battle flag brought down by lawmakers this summer amid calls for racial justice and equality.
In unofficial results Wednesday morning, 71% of voters signed off on making “The New Magnolia” the state’s new flag. The design by graphic artist Rocky Vaughan features the phrase “In God We Trust” over a blue banner with red and gold bars on each end, and a white magnolia in the center surrounded by stars.
The “yes” vote on the new flag still requires legislators to formally enact the design into law when they meet in January for the 2021 legislative session before it can be flown above government buildings and around the state.
Mississippi was the only state in the nation to still have a flag featuring the Confederate battle emblem, a symbol that stirs deep emotions among many African Americans who have long associated it with racism, slavery and white supremacist groups.
Many white Southerners have defended the flag as an emblem of their heritage and regional pride.
Attempts to change the state flag in the Legislature have failed since at least 1988, according to the Mississippi Historical Society, and residents overwhelmingly voted to keep the flag as is in a 2001 referendum election.
Legal challenges reaching the Supreme Court as recently as 2017 have also failed.
But the public debate about the rebel flag and other Confederate battle emblems began to shift in favor of their elimination in 2015 when a 21-year-old white man on a mission to start a race war attended a Bible study class at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and murdered nine black worshippers.
Photos of the white supremacist shooter posing with the Confederate battle flag surfaced almost immediately after the killings, igniting more scrutiny over the symbol, including one showing him holding a gun in one hand, and the flag in the other. The massacre led to at least 100 attempts to remove or alter publicly supported Confederacy symbols, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
But unrest over racial injustice reached a new high six months ago when the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers sparked a national reckoning on race relations in America.
Nationwide protests in response to the unarmed black man’s death resulted in the removal or destruction of Confederate monuments and statues across the country, including in the Southern states and at least half a dozen monuments in Mississippi.
But perhaps the most consequential came when the Republican-controlled Mississippi Legislature officially voted in late June to change the flag in place since 1894. The historic measure called for a commission to redesign a new state flag that must have the words “In God We Trust,” and without the Confederate symbol.
“Our flag should reflect the beauty and good in all of us,” Vaughan said in a statement. “It should represent a state that deserves a positive image. The New Magnolia Flag represents the warmth and strength of the good people of Mississippi. Now is the time we show the world that we’re from Mississippi, the Magnolia State.”
Republican Governor Tate Reed said at the bill signing that the removal of the symbol 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. “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.”
The Commission to Redesign the Mississippi State Flag had narrowed about 3,000 submissions to 147 last month, before narrowing their top five and eventual finalist.
Voters also easily passed a measure favoring the legalization of medical marijuana in the state that President Donald Trump carried over Joe Biden by 21 points.