Confederate banner will remain on Mississippi flag

Wednesday, April 18th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) _ The banner that led Confederate troops in the Civil War will remain on Mississippi's flag, as voters rejected warnings the symbol is racist and an obstacle to economic development.

By nearly a 2-1 margin, Mississippi residents voted Tuesday to keep their current state flag, defeating a proposed alternative that would have replaced the Confederate emblem in the upper left corner with a cluster of 20 stars.

With all precincts reporting, 488,630 voters, or 65 percent, favored keeping the 1894 flag, while 267,812 voters, or 35 percent, wanted to replace it.

``I don't think black people were upset with the flag,'' said Robert Crook, a former state senator. ``There was no hue and cry, no boycotts.''

Opponents continued their criticism of the Confederate symbol, which they denounced as racist.

``The flag _ outside of a symbol of racism _ is an advertisement,'' said Tony Gaylor, a lawyer who was one of about a dozen people at Hal and Mal's Restaurant in Jackson for a post-election party. ``As long as the state continues to advertise itself as racist, it will be seen as racist.

``We can only hope that one day the state of Mississippi will be dragged into the 21st century, into progress,'' he said.

The vote was part of a larger debate across the South about dealing with past racism and facing the future.

In neighboring Alabama, jury selection is under way in the trial of a white man accused in one of the civil rights era's most notorious crimes, the 1963 bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The blast killed four black girls.

In recent years, prosecutors in Mississippi and other states also have dusted off files on old civil rights cases.

In 1994, a jury convicted Byron de la Beckwith of assassinating NAACP leader Medgar Evers in Jackson in 1963. Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore said he is also pursuing leads in a case against those accused of killing three civil rights workers in 1964.

Other Southern states have also wrestled with symbols of the Confederacy.

Last year, South Carolina lawmakers removed a Confederate flag from atop the Statehouse dome. In January, Georgia legislators shrank the Confederate symbol that had dominated that state's flag since 1956.

The Mississippi vote was largely split along racial lines. In DeSoto County, an 86 percent white county in the Memphis suburbs, the old flag won by a 6-1 margin. Hinds, a majority black county that is home to the state capital, went almost 2-to-1 for the new design.

In a few majority-black counties, the vote was surprisingly close. The predominantly black Delta went for the new flag, but not overwhelmingly. Mississippi, with 2.8 million people, is 61 percent white and 36 percent black.

While largely peaceful, the flag debate polarized some voters along racial lines, with some whites saying they support the old flag because it is the banner they saluted as children. Others see the Confederate emblem as a symbol of past injustices, including lynchings by the Ku Klux Klan.

Supporters of the current flag who gathered Tuesday to watch the returns come in shrugged at the suggestion that the emblem could hinder economic development.

``This is not racism. This is my heritage,'' said Anthony Hervey, a black Mississippi native who often dresses in the regalia of a Confederate soldier. He said Mississippians' support of the flag is akin to ``standing up for home.''

Mississippi's flag became an open question last May, when the state Supreme Court found the banner had no official standing. The Legislature decided to let the voters choose.

Despite Tuesday's results, critics of the Confederate emblem vowed to continue their fight.

``This is not a defining moment by putting it to a popular vote,'' said Malcolm White, co-owner of Hal and Mal's. ``This is not the end of the road. The struggle will continue.''