MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
A bill to remove a Confederate emblem from the Mississippi state flag is now awaiting the governor's signature. Lawmakers voted yesterday to change the flag, and Republican Governor Tate Reeves is promising to sign the bill into law. The Mississippi flag has long been the subject of debate, especially these last several weeks as the whole country reconsiders monuments to white supremacy. NPR's Debbie Elliott has been following the debate over the flag for decades now, and she joins us.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Hi there.
KELLY: So the current Mississippi flag has been around more than 120 years. You have not been following the debate quite that long, but tell us a little bit about the history and what it actually looks like as of now.
ELLIOTT: Well, the flag was first adopted in 1894 by white supremacists. They were reclaiming power after the period of Reconstruction, which was that generation after the Civil War when African Americans actually had power in states like Mississippi. The design incorporates the Confederate battle flag. It's a red background with a blue X that's lined with 13 white stars. It's a familiar symbol. You've probably seen groups like the Ku Klux Klan use it in modern history.
Ever since the civil rights movement, activists in Mississippi have been calling it - for its removal, arguing it's an outdated banner in a state that has now a 38% African American population. But state elected officials have been reluctant. They were not willing to go against the nearly 65% of voters who approved keeping this flag design in a 2001 referendum.
KELLY: So what has been the reaction to this vote over the weekend to get rid of it?
ELLIOTT: You know, you could hear cheering in the galleries at what many considered historic bipartisan votes in the Republican-controlled legislature - both houses. Democratic state Representative Robert Johnson is the minority leader in the Mississippi House. I spoke with him today. He says, you know, it makes no sense that it took this long, but he feels a sense of relief today.
ROBERT JOHNSON: You can't live in Mississippi as an African American and don't every day feel angry when you see that flag because you know what it meant - what it means. You know when a person waves it, it's like somebody waving a weapon or a gun or a threat at you. And then, you know, it represents to you your ancestors' servitude and slavery.
ELLIOTT: Now Johnson says he can now tell his kids they have a place in Mississippi's future.
KELLY: Fascinating to hear him talk and know that he has been fighting for a long time to get rid of the Confederate battle flag, get it off the Mississippi flag. He has seen no success until now. Is this all about this national moment we're all watching unfold?
ELLIOTT: I think the answer is yes. You know, with mounting calls for racial justice going on all around the world, frankly, it became increasingly clear that the state flag, with its Confederate emblem, was a liability for Mississippi because it's widely seen as a racist symbol. Lawmakers heard from the state's top industries, along with the NCAA, the Southeastern Conference, Mississippi's universities, their top athletes. Even the Southern Baptist Convention said it was time to retire the divisive Confederate imagery.
KELLY: So how significant is this vote, is this victory for activists who have been fighting the flag?
ELLIOTT: You know, they say it presents an opportunity now for a turning point in Mississippi - that changing a symbol alone isn't enough if policy doesn't follow. Danielle Holmes with the Mississippi Poor People's Campaign calls the flag vote a, quote, "moral victory." But she says the real victory will be when the state adopts policies that benefit all Mississippians. And she points to issues like the state's struggle with high poverty rates, poor education outcomes and health care disparities.
KELLY: That is NPR's Debbie Elliott reporting.
Thanks as always, Deb.
ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.