Mississippi Flag Referendum Clears Another Hurdle

Following months of review, Mississippi lawmakers agreed Tuesday to let voters decide whether or not to accept a new design for the state flag.

The Mississippi House voted 119-1 Tuesday to hold an April 17 referendum on the issue, and a Senate vote is expected later this week.

In the election, Mississippians will decide if the Confederate battle emblem remains on the state flag. A gubernatorial commission recommended replacing the battle emblem with a circle of stars. Both options will be on the ballot.

Former Gov. William Winter, who led the flag commission, said he was pleased with the legislature’s decision.

"I think it is an appropriate process and one that I think will ultimately result in the establishment of a new flag for the state of Mississippi," Winter said.

It may get ugly, however. Public hearings held while the commission debated the matter often devolved into race-tinged fights, with blacks calling the current flag racist and whites defending it as part of their Confederate history.

Winter acknowledged that tensions still run high, but he remained confident. "I think the common sense and good will of a majority of Mississippians will prevail," he said.

In Tuesday’s session, only Rep. Omeria Scot, a Democrat from Laurel, voted against the bill. She said she was opposed to a section that would allow the current flag to be flown at historic events.

"That means that flag will be flown at every parade, every holiday celebration ... I could not vote for that," Scott said. "I couldn't support it. That one part trivializes Jimmy's fight to me."

She was referring to the late Rep. Jimmy Thornton, D-Greenville, who died in November after a fight with cancer.

Thornton was at the forefront of efforts in the 2000 Legislature to challenge the state flag, requesting that bills be read aloud in the House in the closing days of the session. The reading was to protest the failure of lawmakers to take up a proposal to change the flag.

Legislative leaders expected the bill would pass easily after it cleared the House Appropriations Committee on Monday.

"We have enough stress and strain on the people of Mississippi as it is," said Rep. David Green, D-Gloster, one of 34 blacks in the House. "This issue with the wrong group of folks for whatever reason could divide Mississippi ... and I think we need to avoid that. Our efforts should be toward coming together."

Other lawmakers were glad to put the decision in voters’ hands. "We gave the people what they wanted. We passed it on to them," said Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville. "I'm going to support them in whatever they do."

In order to hold April’s statewide election, the bill must pass the Senate and legal review. Lawmakers said state Attorney General Mike Moore would seek speedy approval.

Voters would choose between two flag designs — one, the present banner with the Confederate battle flag in the upper left corner and designated "1894 state flag design;" the other, a new design with a circle of 20 stars on a blue field in the upper left corner and designated "proposed new flag design."

The secretary of state's office would provide each county with a ballot that has a color picture or drawing of each of the flag designs. The state would pay for the ballots.

— FOXNews.com reporter Adrienne Mand and the Associated Press contributed to this report