JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The national president of a civil-rights group says Confederate symbols represent "treason" and should be removed from public objects, including the Mississippi state flag.
Charles Steele Jr., head of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said Wednesday at the Mississippi Capitol that Confederate names should disappear from streets and structures. Debate about the prominence of Old South symbols reignited after the June 17 massacre of nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.
"The Confederacy and what it stands for is treason," Steele said.
He said he believes if African-Americans had ever organized to overthrow the U.S. government, they would've been killed or deported, and the South needs to stop commemorating the Confederacy.
"We are saying that, 'You were defeated, and you need to know you were defeated,'" Steele said.
Standing with about three dozen Mississippi residents, including several black elected officials, Steele said Mississippi should remove the Confederate battle emblem from its flag.
Mississippi state Rep. Jim Evans agreed.
"That flag is known around the world as man's inhumanity to man," said Evans, a Democrat from Jackson.
Since the Charleston killings, some Mississippi leaders have called for changing the flag the state adopted in 1894, with the Confederate X in the upper left corner. Mississippi House Speaker, Philip Gunn, a Republican, cites his Christian faith in saying the Confederate emblem is offensive and the state needs a flag that would unify people.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant says Mississippi voters should decide the flag's fate. During a statewide election in 2001, people voted nearly 2-to-1 to keep the Confederate design.
Steele, a former Alabama state senator, specified two structures he thinks should be renamed in his home state: Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery, which was named decades ago for the top Confederate general and now has a mostly black enrollment; and the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, named for a Confederate general who became a Ku Klux Klan leader. Police attacked civil-rights marchers on the bridge in 1965.
Greg Stewart, a longtime member of the Mississippi Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans, said he believes politicians are latching onto the Charleston shootings as an excuse to change Confederate symbols and distract attention from other issues, such as an international trade agreement recently debated in Washington.
"There's kind of a 'wag the dog' thing going on here," Stewart told The Associated Press last week. "The deaths obviously are being exploited."
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