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With a stroke of the governor’s pen, Mississippi is retiring the last state flag in the U.S. with the Confederate battle emblem — a symbol that’s widely condemned as racist.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves on Tuesday signed the historic bill that takes the 126-year-old state flag out of law, immediately removing official status for the banner that has been a source of division for generations.

“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 in a statement. “We are a resilient people defined by our hospitality. We are a people of great faith. Now, more than ever, we must lean on that faith, put our divisions behind us, and unite for a greater good.”

Mississippi has faced increasing pressure to change its flag since protests against racial injustice have focused attention on Confederate symbols.

A broad coalition of legislators on Sunday passed the landmark legislation to change the flag, capping a weekend of emotional debate and decades of effort by Black lawmakers and others who see the rebel emblem as a symbol of hatred.

The Confederate battle emblem has a red field topped by a blue X with 13 white stars. White supremacist legislators put it on the upper-left corner of the Mississippi flag in 1894, as white people were squelching political power that African Americans had gained after the Civil War.

Critics have said for generations that it’s wrong for a state where 38% of the people are Black to have a flag marked by the Confederacy, particularly since the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups have used the symbol to promote racist agendas.

Mississippi voters chose to keep the flag in a 2001 statewide election, with supporters saying they saw it as a symbol of Southern heritage. But since then, a growing number of cities and all the state’s public universities have abandoned it.

Several Black legislators, and a few white ones, kept pushing for years to change it. After a white gunman who had posed with the Confederate flag killed Black worshipers at a South Carolina church in 2015, Mississippi’s Republican speaker of the House, Philip Gunn, said his religious faith compelled him to say that Mississippi must purge the symbol from its flag.

The issue was still broadly considered too volatile for legislators to touch, until the police custody death of an African American man in Minneapolis, George Floyd, set off weeks of sustained protests against racial injustice, followed by calls to take down Confederate symbols.

A groundswell of young activists, college athletes and leaders from business, religion, education and sports called on Mississippi to make this change, finally providing the momentum for legislators to vote.

Before the governor signed the bill Tuesday, state employees raised and lowered several of the flags on a pole outside the Capitol. The secretary of states office sells flags for $20 each. A spokeswoman for that office, Kendra James, said Tuesday there has been a recent increase in requests from people wanting to buy one.

During news conferences in recent weeks, Reeves had repeatedly refused to say whether he thought the Confederate-themed flag properly represents present-day Mississippi, sticking to a position he ran on last year, when he promised people that if the flag design was going to be reconsidered, it would be done in another statewide election.

Now, a commission will design a new flag, one that cannot include the Confederate symbol and must have the words “In God We Trust.” Voters will be asked to approve the new design in the Nov. 3 election. If they reject it, the commission will draft a different design using the same guidelines, to be sent to voters later.

Said Reeves in signing over the flags demise, “We are all Mississippians and we must all come together. What better way to do that than include “In God We Trust” on our new state banner."

He added: “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."

© Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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Reds' Garrett Drops Fears, Speaks Out About Racial Injustice

By JOE KAY, AP Sports Writer

CINCINNATI (AP) — With so few Black players in the major leagues, Cincinnati Reds reliever Amir Garrett was afraid to talk openly about racial discrimination. He kept his thoughts — and his stories — to himself.

He wouldn't speak of the time in high school in California when he and another Black classmate were on their way to basketball practice, playing their music in the car. Police pulled them over, shoved them against the car, frisked them aggressively, emptied the car while claiming to look for drugs, then them go.

They received no ticket, Garrett said, but a threat.

“They say, ‘OK, you can go, but next time don’t play your music so loud around here because next time we're not going to be so nice,'” Garrett said Monday.

Silent no more, the 28-year-old pitcher is trying to bring awareness, starting within his own team.

When George Floyd, a Black man, died on May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes, Garrett texted the video to first baseman Joey Votto, the Reds' most prominent player. Votto watched it the next day and was brought to tears.

Votto responded to Garrett and started a conversation. Votto then began reaching out to others to hear their experiences and eventually wrote a column in The Cincinnati Enquirer about his changing views.

“I think I've changed as a man. I feel my perspective has changed,” Votto said Friday on a Zoom call. "I didn't want to (speak up), but I couldn't sleep. There was a long stretch where I couldn't sleep. When it affects me that deeply, I felt strongly about saying something and learning. Every day I'm trying to learn.

“It's wild. We have the very same issue back home in Canada. The very same issue," he said.

Garrett had been reluctant to speak out for a different reason. He saw what happened when Colin Kaepernick tried to focus attention on racial injustice — the quarterback hasn't played again in the NFL.

“I was scared to talk about these injustice issues we were having because in baseball, there's not a lot of African Americans that play the game and I was nowhere near Kaepernick (in prominence),” Garrett said. "I felt I could be pushed out of the game. That was really scary for me.

“But now I felt in my heart I was ready to handle the consequences of whatever may have come from this," he said.

The Reds organized a Zoom session with diversity Saturday with Tru Pettigrew, an inclusion and diversity advocate . Roughly 130 players and organization members participated in the two-hour session, with honest conversation encouraged.

Garrett was among those who shared experiences.

“It really took a lot for me to get vulnerable with my teammates like that,” Garrett said. "I never want somebody to feel sorry for me, or I never want to feel a victim. It took a lot for me to open up to those guys.

“I feel we're so much closer than we were just two days ago. I felt people understood what I was sharing with them and even though they may never fully understand what it's like to be Black in America, I felt I got my point across and they felt everything I was saying.”

Manager David Bell encouraged the discussion. In the last few months he'd been talking to friends, players, former teammates and other colleagues about their experiences with race.

“I have to say for the first time I truly asked questions and understood experiences that people I've been close to in my life, I never took the time to truly understand or truly listen,” Bell said. “It's been a process. I think it's just scratching the surface. It's a step but I certainly have a long way to go.”

And Garrett wants to be part of the process for as many people as possible.

“Though my voice might not be as big as some other players' that we have, it's a start to look past baseball, to look at the bigger picture of the world problems we have," he said. “My following might not be as big as others, but all I'm doing is trying to change one person at a time.”

___

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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