Given choice, Mississippi wraps itself in rebel stars
By Dahlmn Glanton
Chicago Tribune, April 18, 2001, p. 1


ATLANTA--Voters in Mississippi on Tuesday overwhelmingly chose to continue flying a 107-year old state banner that prominently displays the Confederate battle cross, bucking a trend toward stripping the racially divisive emblem from public.venues in the South.

In a state where the legacy of segregation still haunts like a restless ghost, Tuesday's vote was seen by many as an opportunity to reconcile Mississippi's racist past and allow the state to take Its place among others representing a New South.

But despite an expensive campaign to convince residents that the old state flag could thwart social and economic progress in Mississippi, voters turned out in larger than expected numbers against a proposal to replace the 1894 flag, with its Confederate emblem of 13 white stars on a blue X. The rejected design would have replaced the cross with a circle of 20 white stars, denoting Mississippi's role as the 20th state.

With 87 percent of the precincts reporting, 420,806 voters, or 66 percent, favored keeping the old flag and 218,786 voters, or 34 percent, wanted to replace it.

[Janda's note: " 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." This was from a later story filed on the Chicago Tribune's website.]

"Our people have spoken." said Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. "It is important that we accept the majority vote and move forward with the business of bringing new jobs and better opportunities to all Mississippians."

The last state to address the controversial flag issue, Mississippi failed to follow the trend set by four other Southern states--Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Alabama--that have either removed the Confederate battle flag from public buildings or removed or reduced its emblem on their state banners. But while other states have dealt with the issue in their state legislatures, Mississippi is the only one that has held a public referendum.

Throughout the South, the Confederate battle flag has been a racially volatile issue that has stalked the region for more than a decade. Dozens of controversies over the display of the rebel flag and other Confederate symbols have pitted blacks against whites, Republicans against Democrats and conservatives against liberals, just as the Civil War did more than a century ago.

In DeSoto County, a predominantly white county in the northern Mississippi Delta, the old flag led by a 6-1 margin. In Hinds County, the majority black county that includes Jackson, the new flag led 2-1.

Confronted with a national boycott by the NAACP, the South Carolina Legislature voted last year to remove the Confederate flag from its stab dome. Georgia. faced with similar threats, quickly moved to change its state flag earlier this year.

Political fallout from the moves, however, continues. in both states and many legislators who voted in favor of the change, particularly those who represent rural areas, expect toy face stiff opposition in re-election campaigns.

Mississippi's current state flag was adopted in 1894, almost 30 years after slavery was abolished, to honor those who fought in the Civil War. Last May, the Mississippi Supreme Court, ruling in a lawsuit filed by the NAACP, found that the state technically had no official flag. A provision for establishing the flag, the court ruled, was not carried over when the state revised its laws several years after the flag was adopted.

Musgrove appointed a 17- member commission to hold public hearings on the flag and recommend a new design. Lawmakers, shifting responsibility away from the Legislature, voted to hold a state referendum on the new flag.

In a state where 61 percent of voters are white and 36 percent are black, Mississippi has made political breakthroughs in recent years. There are more black elected officials in Mississippi than any state in the nation.

However, when it came to the flag, whites and blacks took opposing positions.

For many whites In the state, the flag represents their Southern heritage, a proud history they fear is being circumvented and disregarded in an era of political correctness. To many blacks, the flag is a reminder of slavery and is viewed as one of the last vestiges of the Old South, a chapter in the nation's history they would like to forget.

While some of the state's leaders, including Republican U.S. Sens. Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, refused to state their positions on the flag, Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat, campaigned across the state to change it.

"We will now have the sole distinction of having a Confederate battle symbol on a flag that can only further divide our diverse population," Thompson said, adding that he was extremely 'disappointed in the vote.

Greg Stewart, a lawyer from Tunica who was among the leading opponents of the new flag, said: "This says nothing about Mississippi. The people participated fully in a relatively Simple Simon issue: What flag do you like? It was the resolution of this issue in the most democratic way"