Mississippi Votes to Keep Controversial Flag

ByABC News

April 18, 2001 -- To some, it's a symbol of racism and hatred.

But to the majority of Mississippi voters, it's a piece of history, and one worth preserving in the state's controversial flag.

On Tuesday, voters in the state overwhelmingly decided to keep their flag as is — with the stars and bars in the upper left corner — making it the last state in the union to wave the rebel symbol over its Statehouse.

Just Cloth on a Stick?

Attorney Greg Stewart helped lead the effort to preserve the flag.

"It's just a piece of cloth that flies on a stick, and certainly that is a decision that even the most common citizen can have an opinion about and they're entitled to have that opinion," he said.

But others said they would continue to fight the flag.

"It's not over," vowed Deborah Denard of the NAACP chapter in Jackson, Miss. "We're not going away."

But Stewart said he doubted it would come up for a vote again.

"I don't think there'll be any support in Mississippi to bring this up again," Stewart said. "I can't see it, even among the people who originally pushed the proposed pattern. They had a good shot, they gave it a good college try. It's over."

Voters had two choices: keep the current flag, adopted in 1894, with theConfederate emblem of 13 white stars on a blue X, or adopt a newflag with 20 white stars on a blue square, to symbolize Mississippi'srole as the 20th state.

Economic Argument for Change

The Confederate symbol has sparked an emotional debate inside the state and out. Advocates argued it is a crucial part of the state's heritage that should continue to have a prominent space in the flag.

Earl Faggert, of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said when he looks at the flag, "I see honor, duty, courage, sacrifice, loyalty and devotion."

Faggert, obviously, was pleased with the outcome.

"I knew the people of Mississippi felt strongly about their flag and their heritage," he said. "They've spoken very loudly and very clearly to all of us."

But others saw the emblem as symbol of Mississippi's slave-holding and segregationist past.

"I see discrimination, Jim Crow laws," said Denard.

Georgia and South Carolina addressed similar controversies last year. In those states, politicians were able to reach a compromise. But in Mississippi, the issue was put directly to the people in today's referendum.

Economic Concerns

Some advocates for change had argued the debate over the flag was not only about history or race relations, but also about economics. George Shelton of the Mississippi Legacy Fund said the state must change its image if it wants to attract investors and tourists.

"This is our chance to show the world what progress we've made and cast some of those old myths aside," Shelton said before the vote, suggesting that the Confederate symbol and its association scares away investors.

Blake Wilson of the Mississippi Economic Council, who also helped lead the effort to preserve the flag, said he did in fact expect and economic backlash against the state — but added that it could be overcome.

"It does set us back and I think it's not insurmountable," said Wilson "I think it's something that we can overcome by pulling together and by telling people the other positive things that are happening in Mississippi."

Many Concerned With Other Issues

The drive to change the flag may have failed partly because the debate did not divide along racial lines as sharply as expected. Some African-American residents said they were not offended by the Confederate symbol, or felt officials should devote their time and state funds to more important issues.

The vote on the flag cost Mississippi more than $2 million, and people wondered how the poorest state in the union can justify spending so much money to change a symbol.

"I think it's more important to pay attention to the education system in Mississippi than the flag," said one African-American resident of Vicksburg, which was besieged by Union forces in one of the pivotal battles of the Civil War.

Another resident argued the people were trying to use the flag debate to solve racism — a problem that would not be erased by a mere vote.

"I don't think the flag is the concern," the man said. "I'm concerned more with the hearts and minds of people. A piece of cloth with stars on it ain't going to change nothing."

ABCNEWS' Jeffrey Kofman in Vicksburg contributed to this report.