JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — After white nationalists marched with the Confederate battle flag last weekend amid violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, critics said the identical emblem should be removed from Mississippi's flag — just as they did two years ago, when a white fan of the Rebel banner massacred black worshippers in South Carolina.
So far, Mississippi hasn't budged.
Mississippi is the last state with a flag featuring the emblem — a red field topped by a blue tilted cross dotted by white stars. Used since 1894, the state flag has long been divisive. With President Donald Trump and others arguing about the public display of Confederate symbols, emotions are running high among Mississippi residents.
Critics excoriate the banner as a racist remnant of slavery and segregation. Supporters embrace it as a symbol of home and heritage.
Charles Jones, who is African-American, said seeing white nationalists marching with the battle flag in Charlottesville was sickening.
"The Mississippi flag currently has the Confederate battle flag attached to it, and of course that represents terrorism — white terrorism, white superiority, that kind of thing," Jones said Thursday. "It's an intimidating symbol, so we definitely need to get rid of it before we can get rid of some of the hatred that we still have. It's ungodly, you know. It's contrary to what the Bible teaches."
Dolly Lee, who is white, flies Mississippi flag on her front porch in the small coastal town of Kiln and sees it as benevolent. She said it's been a symbol of Mississippi pride as long as she can remember, and her grandparents and parents displayed it at their homes.
"It's not the statues or the flag that's causing the hate. It's what's in people's hearts," Lee said. "And, if you have love, then you can love anybody. It doesn't matter the color or what. The world today is what we make it. ... And, just because I've got the state flag in my yard doesn't mean that I hate anybody. It's because I'm from Mississippi, and that's my state flag."
Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, both Republicans, say flag design should be determined by a statewide election.
"Hatred resides in a person's heart, and I doubt the presence of an altered flag makes someone more hateful than they would have been," Reeves said. "Mississippians voted to keep the state flag in 2001. If voters want to revisit the issue, they can, but a Legislature or governor should not unilaterally override the vote of the people."
About two-thirds of the people who voted in the 2001 election voted to keep the design, a margin that roughly reflected the proportion of white to black residents.
Members of the Legislative Black Caucus hold about one-third of the seats in the state House and Senate. The caucus chairwoman, Democratic Rep. Sonya Williams Barnes of Gulfport, said she wants the Confederate emblem erased from the Mississippi flag, either by a vote of the Legislature or by executive order of the governor. The caucus this week asked Bryant to call lawmakers into special session to redesign the flag. He declined.
"The horrific terrorist actions that have taken place in both South Carolina two years ago and Charlottesville, Virginia, a few days ago should shake the souls of our leaders to take action on the flag of this state," Williams Barnes said. "What will it take? We should do something now before the blood stains are on Mississippi soil."
Several cities and counties and all eight of Mississippi's public universities have stopped flying the state flag because of the Confederate emblem.
After the Charleston, South Carolina, church massacre in 2015, Republican state House Speaker Philip Gunn said Mississippi should change its flag to a design that could unite, rather than divide. But since then, Gunn has said there's no consensus in the House to advance any of several redesign proposals. Flag supporters have countered with proposals to withhold some money from universities that refuse to fly the banner; those, too, have failed in the House.
Both of Mississippi's Republican U.S. senators, Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, have said the current flag should be relegated to a museum and a new design adopted. So has Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, the only black member of the state's congressional delegation. But that drew scorn from flag supporters, who say officials want to erase history.
State Rep. David Baria, a Democrat, said Mississippi's economy is hurt and the state is divided by a flag that includes the Confederate image carried by the Ku Klux Klan. He said the flag needs to change, and not by a statewide election.
"My proposal is that the Legislature just man up and do it," Baria said. "I think that the tide is changing."
Stacey Plaisance contributed to this report from south Mississippi.
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