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Richmond removing Confederate statues, Mississippi retires state flag

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Washington (AFP)

A campaign in the United States to remove symbols of the pro-slavery Civil War South gained momentum on Wednesday as workers began taking down statues in the Virginia city that was the Confederate capital and Mississippi retired the state flag.

Workers in Richmond, Virginia, removed a statue of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, a Confederate general, after the city's mayor ordered the "immediate removal" of Confederate monuments.

In Jackson, Mississippi, the state flag was permanently lowered from the state's capitol and taken to a nearby museum. The Mississippi state flag was the last US state banner featuring a Confederate emblem.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said he was using his emergency powers to remove Confederate monuments in order to "expedite the healing process for the city."

"It is past time," Stoney said. "As the capital city of Virginia we have needed to turn this page for decades."

The mayor said that as the Southern capital during the 1861-65 Civil War, Richmond has been "burdened with that legacy."

"The great weight of that burden has fallen on our residents of color," Stoney added. "These statues, although symbolic, have cast a shadow on the dreams of our children of color.

"By removing them we can begin to heal and focus our attention on our future."

Stoney called the move a "down payment" rather than a "solution" to racial injustice in the city and across America.

He said the statues also presented a threat to public safety because protesters have been attempting to take them down during the coronavirus pandemic.

- 'Come to terms with our past' -

Work crews could be seen in televised footage removing the statue on Monument Avenue of Jackson, a Virginian who died in May 1863.

A crowd of several hundred people erupted in cheers as the statue of Jackson mounted on a horse was removed from its stone pedestal by a crane.

A nearby statue of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee has become a focal point for protests and has been covered in slogans such as "Black Lives Matter."

Many Confederate monuments have come under attack, and some have been pulled down, in the past month as protesters against police abuse of African Americans target symbols of the country's legacy of slavery.

President Donald Trump has opposed their removal and the Department of Homeland Security announced a special new task force on Wednesday to protect historic monuments across the country.

In Mississippi, an honor guard lowered three state flags that were on the capitol property, folded them and presented them to state officials.

They were then taken in a motorcade to a nearby museum where the 126-year-old standard will be relegated to history.

The move came one day after Governor Tate Reeves signed a bill ordering the flag's removal.

"Today we come to terms with our past, and we look to our future," said Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn, who was instrumental in the effort to remove the flag.

"We have much to be proud of, and much to reckon with," Gunn said, adding that for some Mississippians, the flag has "been a shadow over their struggle to be free."

Many African Americans believe the flag carries racist connotations, while some white southerners argue it is a symbol of Southern heritage.

A commission has been tasked with selecting a new design for the state flag, which must be emblazoned with the words "In God We Trust."

Mississippians, nearly 40 percent of whom are African American, will vote on the design in November.

Mississippi was the only American state to still incorporate the Confederate standard on its official flag, after nearby Georgia dropped it in 2003.

Efforts to remove Confederate monuments gathered momentum after a white supremacist shot dead nine African Americans at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 and they picked up again following the May 25 death of George Floyd, an African American man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

The NASCAR race car franchise last month banned the display of the Confederate flag at its events and four portraits of 19th century lawmakers who served in the Confederacy were removed from the US Capitol.

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