Mississippi Flag Debate Heads Toward Showdown

Mississippi Flag Debate Heads Toward Showdown

With one eye on the turmoil endured by South Carolina, Mississippi business, athletic and religious leaders here uniting in an uphill battle to convince voters to retire this states controversial flag -- a banner that includes the Confederate battle flag in one corner.

Voters go to the polls for a special, one-issue referendum Tuesday (4/17) to choose between the present flag and a new design that replaces the Confederate battle flag with 20 white stars on a blue field.

But if recent polling is any indication, Mississippi may only be at the beginning, not the end, of the emotional warring that consumed South Carolina, according to data showing that between 55 and 66 percent of those surveyed want to keep the old flag.

"I've never seen an issue that has evoked such strong emotions and I've been handling contested divorces for 28 years," said Don Kilgore, a Philadelphia, Miss. lawyer who, as a leader in the state's pro-business Mississippi Economic Council is advocating the new flag in hopes of staving off out-of-state protesters. "If we reject the new flag, the fight just begins."

In the wake of South Carolina and Georgia actions that reduced the prominence of the battle flag in those states, pro-battle flag supporters around the South rallied on the steps of Mississippi's Capitol Saturday (4/14) for ``Dixie's Last Stand.''

The flag debate has simmered for years. As African-Americans increased their numbers in the Mississippi legislature, there was an annual push for redesigning the state flag.

But the movement failed to get traction until the 2000 session when one black lawmaker -- who has since died of cancer -- began invoking procedural moves to slow down the entire legislative process in an effort to protest the perennial death of such bills.

Then, in the shadow of protests around the South, the Mississippi Supreme Court last year issued a ruling in a long-lingering NAACP case that broke the debate wide open. While refusing to order the state's flag be lowered, they noted that no law on the books designates a state flag. It was repealed, apparently inadvertently, in a 1906 code revision.

Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and legislative leaders appointed a commission to study the issue, and at a series of five, packed public hearings across the state, they were swamped by a torrent of protests from both pro and anti-flag sentiments.

The debate often degenerated into shouting diatribes over slavery and civil rights. One black senator was taunted with references to a "watermelon" as he spoke, and another was told he was lucky his ancestors were slaves.

Seeing little chance for a successful vote in the state Legislature, the commission recommended -- and the Legislature quickly adopted -- the April 17 referendum offering voters a choice.

Supporters of the old flag, bruised by media portrayals of race-based buffoonery at the public hearings, have sharply reined in their campaign to appeal to moderate voters.

Greg Stewart, a Tunica, Miss. lawyer and commander of a Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp in Oxford, Miss., even suggested recently that supporters of a new flag would enlist a "Klan for hire" to march before the election. Speaking for the flag of 1894 at a recent debate, Stewart invoked few of the heritage arguments, and talked more about racial healing.

"Among black Mississippians there is no support (for the new flag) ... they're on the receiving end of racism and they know the solutions," said Stewart. "It is not to snatch down the flag."

So far, two political action committees have filed in support of the old flag, but both appear to be networking via the Internet, rather than buying mass media. They reported raising and spending just over $7,000.

But the League of the South, Council of Conservative Citizens and Sons of Confederate Veterans are using their internal organizations -- and the clientele at area gun shows -- to rally support..

To counter, the business community has put together a string of endorsements from traditionally conservative groups -- bankers, tourism officials, chambers of commerce. It has also enlisted athletic leaders who fear an NCAA boycott and religious leaders calling for racial reconciliation.

"I really believe this state is turning the corner and is really emerging as the next jewel in the crown of the South. But if we are to make sure the jewel is set, we've got make sure we do the right thing,'' said Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council. "It would be a setback if Mississippians don't do what I think Mississippians will do ... it would be a shame to lose the momentum."

The Legacy Fund, run by a former aide to Gov. Musgrove and leaders of the Mississippi Economic Council such as Wilson, raised more than $650,000 from some of the state's leading names, ranging from tobacco trial attorney Richard Scruggs ($125,000), to former Netscape CEO James Barksdale ($185,000).

The group is coy on its plans, but it clearly is using extensive phone banking, direct mail and some radio, all stressing the basic economic message that Mississippi does not need this fight just as it lands major economic development prospects like Nissan, now breaking ground in Canton, Miss. on a $900 million plant.

They may well go on television in the final days to appeal to swing voters -- moms.

"When you say to mothers: `do you want your children to have the opportunities to come home (and work)? We need to do things that unify this state," said Kilgore. "This is an opportunity to preserve and honor our heritage and history and send a message to the rest of the world that Mississippi is a player and is here to compete economically."

Perhaps belated, they are stressing that the alternative flag proposal includes a "compromise" that will automatically enact protections for Civil War monuments to prevent them from being renamed. A group of 87 historians at the state's universities is endorsing the alternative flag design.

One key to the election is whether African Americans bother to vote. One poll shows that as many as a third of the state's blacks are uninterested in changing the flag. Rep. Robert Clark (D-Ebenezer), the first black elected to the Mississippi statehouse, laments that there is no organized, get-out-the-vote campaign to motive blacks to get to the polls.

But that is changing. A 16-page tabloid-style brochure encouraging black voters to get to the polls is now circulating in the black communities, and the same message is likely to resonate in Easter sermons in many of Mississippi's black churches.

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