Published January 13, 2015
Mississippi voted overwhelmingly to keep the Confederate emblem on its flag Tuesday, rejecting suggestions from the governor and business leaders that a new flag would help the state escape its segregationist past.
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.
Mississippi is the last state to prominently display the emblem on its flag.
Former Gov. William Winter, who led a commission last year that recommended a new banner, said he was disappointed.
"I take reassurance in the fact that so many Mississippians did cast a vote for a symbol of unity for our state," Winter said. "I hope that out of this effort will come an increased understanding of our continuing obligation to work for a Mississippi that has its face turned to the future and not the past."
In a state where William Faulkner said the past is never dead, the flag debate, while largely peaceful, polarized some voters along racial lines.
In DeSoto County, a predominantly white county in the Memphis suburbs, the old flag led by a six-to-one margin. In Hinds County, the majority-black county that includes Jackson, the new flag led two-to-one.
Voters had two choices: keep the current 1894 flag with the Confederate emblem of 13 white stars on a blue X, or adopt a new flag with 20 white stars on a blue square, denoting Mississippi's role as the 20th state.
Farmer Terry Galey voted to keep the old banner.
"I've had things on my farm that have been working for 20 years and if they're still working, why change them?" he said Tuesday, a crisp spring day during cotton-planting time across the Delta.
The results were in line with a poll last month in which two-thirds of respondents favored keeping the 1894 flag. The poll, commissioned by The Associated Press and other news organizations, was conducted before advocates on either side geared up with ads, telephone calls and rallies.
Some whites said they support the old flag because it represents their heritage and was the banner they saluted as children. Many blacks see the emblem as a symbol of past injustices, including beatings and lynchings by the Ku Klux Klan. The state, with 2.8 million people, is 61 percent white and 36 percent black.
Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and many business leaders supported the new flag, saying it would help move the state forward economically and socially.
The debate arose after the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled last May that the state technically has no flag, because the 1894 design was left out when the state code was updated in 1906. The Legislature decided to let the voters choose.
The vote is 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 bombing 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.
South Carolina lawmakers, under economic pressure from the NAACP, last year 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.
Many Alabama cities and counties have stopped flying the state's flag -- a red X over a white background, adopted in 1895 -- because some say it looks too much like the Confederate banner.
"I think that the recent changes, including discussions on changing symbols, reopening old civil rights murder cases, as well as developments like new business, all indicate that the South is maturing," said Susan Glisson, interim director of the Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi.
Glisson is among those who advocated a new flag in Mississippi. She said the 1894 banner represents "terror" for too many citizens.