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Washington (AFP) - Lawmakers in Mississippi are to vote Sunday on removing the Confederate battle standard from the flag of the southern US state, after weeks of convulsive anti-racism protests drew renewed attention to such symbols of the nation's racist past.
Lopsided votes in both houses of the state's legislature Saturday, following weeks of mounting pressure and hours of impassioned debate, ensured that a proposal to immediately take down the old flag and find a replacement should easily pass Sunday, when votes will require only a simple majority.
"This is an opportunity for us to find a flag that’s unifying for all Mississippians, and that’s what we’re going to do," House speaker Philip Gunn, a Republican, told cheering legislators, the Clarion Ledger newspaper reported.
Governor Tate Reeves, who had sought to side-step the debate, said Saturday that he will sign the bill into law once it passes.
The criss-crossed diagonal stars pattern on the old flag was used by southern troops, including Mississippians, during the 1861-1865 American Civil War -- the bloody conflict that brought an end to slavery -- and for many it remains a symbol of the country's dark racial legacy.
That history has been the subject of a renewed and fiery national conversation since the death in May of unarmed African-American George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer.
His death ignited mass civil unrest across the country that has also led to the destruction of symbols of racial injustice, including statues of former Confederate military leaders.
Mississippi is the only American state to incorporate the battle standard on its official flag, after nearby Georgia voted for the symbol's removal from its own flag in 2003.
Two years before that, Mississippi voted overwhelmingly to retain its current flag, hailed by its defenders as a proud symbol of southern heritage and history.
"I know that when you walk into this building every day ... I would guess that a lot don't even see that flag in the right corner up there," Edward Blackman, an African-American Democratic lawmaker, told colleagues during the debate Saturday.
"There's some of us who notice it every time we walk in here, and it's not a good feeling," he added.
- National reckoning -
But Governor Reeves said Saturday that changing the symbolism on a flag would not end racism or mend divisions in his state.
Bringing the state together, he wrote on Twitter, “will be harder than recovering from tornadoes, harder than historic floods ... even harder than battling the Coronavirus.”
Floyd's death and the ensuing civil unrest have prompted institutions around the country to scrutinize their roles in perpetuating racial injustice.
Princeton University said Saturday it was removing the name of President Woodrow Wilson from its public policy school and a residential college, calling the former US leader a racist.
President from 1913 to 1921, Wilson was the founding father of the League of Nations, a forerunner of the United Nations, and embodied the end of American isolationism.
But the 28th US president also supported racist policies, notably allowing segregation in federal agencies even after they had been racially integrated for decades.
"He not only acquiesced in, but added to the persistent practice of racism in this country, a practice that continues to do harm today," Princeton's president Christopher Eisgruber said in a statement.