JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Country rockers Steve Earle & The Dukes have released a new song exhorting Mississippi to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag.
The single, "It's Time, Mississippi," went on sale Friday as a fundraiser for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Virginia native Earle sings that he comes from a "long, long line / of a Rebel strain / but the wind has changed."
Old South symbols have been widely debated since the June 17 massacre of nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The man charged in the slayings had previously posed for online photos, holding the Confederate battle flag.
Soon after the killings, the Confederate battle flag was removed from state Capitol grounds by lawmakers in South Carolina and by the governor in Alabama. But Mississippi continues to fly the state flag it has used since 1894, with the rebel emblem in one corner.
The song is posted to the Southern Poverty Law Center website (http://bit.ly/1KIP7g1), with a statement from Earle, who said he lived in the South for the first 50 of his 60 years.
"I know that I'm not the only Southerner who never believed for one second that the Confederate battle flag is symbolic of anything but racism in anything like a modern context," Earle said.
Mississippi leaders, and the public, are divided on whether to keep the flag or ditch it.
Jeppie Barbour, a brother of Republican former Gov. Haley Barbour, is helping organize efforts to keep the Confederate emblem on the Mississippi flag. He said Friday that he had not heard the new song.
"I am hesitant to pay too much attention to musicians," Jeppie Barbour told The Associated Press. "But they have the right to believe what they want to believe and say what they want to say. And so do I, and I say, 'Keep it.'"
The Republican speaker of the Mississippi House, both Republican U.S. senators, the state's only black congressman and many state lawmakers from both parties have said the state flag should be redesigned without the divisive symbol.
But Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, both Republicans, have said if the issue is reconsidered, it should be done by a statewide vote rather than by the Legislature. In a 2001 election, Mississippi voters decided by nearly 2-to-1 to keep the Confederate emblem on the flag.
The flag's defenders see it as a symbol of history and heritage, while critics say it's a stark reminder of slavery and segregation.
In lyrics and melody echoing the strains of "Dixie," Earle sings in the new song: "I wish I was in a land that never / held a soul in bondage ever."
The Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center tracks racial hate crimes and files lawsuits to challenge conditions in schools and jails.
Concerning the SPLC, Jeppie Barbour said, "There are a lot of people who I would not pay any attention to, and they are high up the list."
Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.