BILOXI, Miss. (AP) — As a warm breeze wafts in from the Gulf of Mexico, Carol Mize paces across the street from Biloxi's white marble City Hall. In one hand, she carries a Mississippi flag and in the other, a sign with the slogan: "Fly the flag, Mayor."
Both the flag and the sign prominently display the Confederate battle emblem, which has caused a rift for generations between those who say it represents Southern heritage and those who call it racist. Discussion of the emblem has stirred Mize's passion as Biloxi finds itself the latest front line in a broad regional dispute over Confederate symbols after the mayor recently ordered the state flag to be pulled from city buildings.
"This flag right here had nothing to do with slavery," insists Mize, 55, who says she's also been protesting the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans.
The assertion puts Mize — and the other protesters keeping a nearly daily vigil outside City Hall — at odds with many historians and opponents of the banner that Mississippi has flown since 1894.
It's the last state flag in the nation that prominently features the Confederate battle emblem — a red field topped by a tilted cross dotted with white stars. Like many symbols of the Old South, the Mississippi flag has come under intense scrutiny since June 2015, when an avowed white supremacist killed nine black worshippers at a Charleston, South Carolina, church. The man, Dylann Roof, had posed for photos holding the rebel flag.
Many places across the South have debated whether to take down the flag or other Confederate images. New Orleans recently went so far as to remove four statues — three with Confederate figures and one a monument to white supremacy.
Mississippi voters chose to keep the state flag in a 2001 election. Since the Charleston shooting, Mississippi legislators have declined to change the design, with the governor saying voters should decide the issue if it is reconsidered.
The debate this time around is different from the one in 2001. Instead of waiting for a top-down decision, many cities and counties and all eight public universities have acted on their own to remove the flag from display since 2015. The capital city — Jackson, with a majority-black population — furled it years earlier.
Biloxi is the latest and one of the largest cities to act. Republican Mayor Andrew "FoFo" Gilich ordered the flag removed from city buildings in April, saying he believes the Confederate emblem makes people feel unwelcome. He said he'd intended to fly only the American flag at city buildings once in office, but the state flag still fluttered in some places. Gilich, seeking a second term in June, was asked about it at a candidate forum hosted by the NAACP.
Hospitality is important in Biloxi, a diverse city that is home to an Air Force base and has an economy heavily dependent on tourists who gamble in casinos and sunbathe on white-sand beaches.
"This is a gumbo of opinions and experiences," Gilich said of Biloxi. "I wanted to make sure, as mayor, that everybody feels welcome."
Gilich, 69, was born and raised in Biloxi and speaks with the distinctive regional accent similar to the New Orleans mélange of Brooklyn-meets-the-Deep South. Before taking public office two years ago, Gilich ran a software company that managed school-lunch information systems.
Gilich's flag decision immediately sparked a backlash. Protesters showed up at City Council meetings. Councilman Robert Deming II proposed an ordinance to require the state flag to fly at all municipal buildings.
A vote on that ordinance had been scheduled for Tuesday. It was postponed indefinitely so city officials can seek guidance from the state attorney general about whether Mississippi law allows a council to consider undoing the mayor's action.
Deming said there's lots of "drummed-up opposition" to the flag, and that he's heard from a variety of people, including black and Asian residents, who support it.
"If a politician can unilaterally take down the state flag if he disagrees with something, then he can take down the American flag if he disagrees with something," Deming said.
Democrat Felix Gines, the only African-American on Biloxi's seven-member council, calls Deming's proposal "a punch in the gut" and wants Mississippi to revert to a previous flag featuring a magnolia tree.
"We need a symbol that brings us all together," Gines said.
Michael Cavanaugh, a white attorney, grew up in Biloxi, graduating from a Catholic high school in 1967. The mascot was the Rebels; students waved the Confederate battle flag while the band played "Dixie." Cavanaugh says that was an innocent expression of school spirit, but he now views the Confederate battle emblem as bad for business.
"It was hijacked by the Klan, neo-Nazi groups, skinheads, white supremacists and people like Dylann Roof," said Cavanaugh, who supports the mayor's decision.
Others view the flag with less intensity.
Alex and Kendra Winnick of Meridian, Mississippi, were vacationing in Biloxi with their 1-year-old. The African-American couple, sitting on a beach near the landmark Biloxi lighthouse, said they barely notice the state flag, though they understand older African-Americans find it offensive.
"We don't pay attention to it because we're a younger generation," Kendra Winnick said.
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