Mississippi legislators have taken the first steps toward erasing the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag, a symbol that has come under intensifying criticism amid nationwide protests against racial injustice.
The second-ranking officer in the Mississippi house, Jason White, told his colleagues: “The eyes of the state, the nation and indeed the world, are on this house.”
The house voted by more than the required two-thirds majority to suspend legislative deadlines and file a bill to change the flag.
The senate is expected to vote on the suspension later, which will allow debate on a bill as soon as Sunday.
Republican governor Tate Reeves said for the first time that he would sign a bill to change the flag if the Republican-controlled legislature sends him one.
He had previously said that he would not veto one – a more passive stance.
Mr Reeves said on social media: “The legislature has been deadlocked for days as it considers a new state flag.
“The argument over the 1894 flag has become as divisive as the flag itself and it’s time to end it. If they send me a bill this weekend, I will sign it.”
A bill will only need a simple majority to pass the house and senate. It will say that the current flag will be removed from state law.
A commission would design a new flag that cannot include the Confederate battle emblem but must include the phrase “In God We Trust”.
The new design would be put on the ballot for November 3. If a majority voting that day accepts the new design, it would become the state flag. If a majority rejects it, the commission would design a new flag using the same guidelines.
“I know there are many good people who … believe that this flag is a symbol of our Southern pride and heritage,” said Mr White, the Republican speaker pro tempore of the House.
“But for most people throughout our nation and the world, they see that flag and think that it stands for hatred and oppression.”
Republican representative Chris Brown of Nettleton appeared at a 2016 rally outside the state Capitol for people who want to keep the Confederate emblem on the flag.
He said on Saturday that the current flag and a proposed new design should both go on the ballot.
“I don’t think we can move forward together if we say, ‘Ýou can have any flag you want except … this one,'” Mr Brown said.
“If we put the current flag on the ballot with another good design, the people of Mississippi will change it. I believe that. Let’s not steal their joy. They want to show the world that they’re moving on.”
Mississippi has the last state flag that includes the Confederate battle emblem – a red field topped by a blue X with 13 white stars.
The battle emblem has been in the upper-left corner of the Mississippi flag since 1894. White supremacists in the legislature put it there during backlash to the political power that African Americans gained after the Civil War.
The Mississippi supreme court ruled in 2000 that the flag lacked official status.
State laws were updated in 1906, and portions dealing with the flag were not carried forward. Legislators put forward a flag election in 2001, and voters kept the rebel-themed design.
The current flag has remained divisive in a state with a 38% black population. All of the state’s public universities and several cities and counties have stopped flying it because of the Confederate symbol.
Influential business, religious, education and sports groups are calling on Mississippi to drop the Confederate symbol. Flag supporters say the banner should be left alone, or put on the statewide ballot for voters to decide its fate.