Mississippians rejected criticism of the Confederate battle cross as a hateful reminder of slavery and generations of racial oppression today by voting overwhelmingly to retain the emblem as the dominant feature of the state flag.
At a time when other states have minimized displays of the contentious rebel symbol, Mississippi voted to keep it.
"It makes us very, very proud," declared Earl Faggert, a former state commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, as vote totals heavily in favor of the rebel emblem flashed on a TV screen at a Jackson hotel tonight. Faggert, who led his group's campaign to defeat a proposed redesign of the 107-year-old flag, said, "Perhaps we've finally been able to turn the tide on the cultural cleansing in our country. Maybe we'll send a message to other states that they need a referendum, too."
After weeks of sometimes angry public debate, Faggert and other supporters of the current state flag prevailed over Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a moderate Democrat who backed the proposed redesign, and the state's largest business lobby, the Mississippi Economic Council, which led the campaign to rid the state flag of the familiar Confederate symbol -- a blue cross with 13 white stars.
With 93 percent of precincts reporting, according to the Associated Press, supporters of the current flag were headed for a landslide with 65 percent of the vote.
While a large number of whites see the rebel cross as an emblem of their heritage -- "our courage, pride and honor," as Faggert put it -- many blacks consider it part of the South's legacy of rigid, sometimes murderous racial oppression. Business leaders said they feared that a vote to retain the old flag would bring renewed attention to Mississippi's segregationist past and discourage industry from investing in the state.
"You don't need to have this flag flying over all the state office buildings and everything just to prove a point," Johnnie Slater, a black cab driver in Jackson who is a descendent of slaves, said tonight. "Just put one in your yard or your house or your bedroom, and you'll have all your heritage right there in your house."
In rejecting a proposed new flag on which the rebel emblem would have been replaced by a circular field of stars, representing nations and Native American tribes that held dominion over Mississippi in past centuries, voters chose to stand alone in the South. After South Carolina lowered the Confederate battle flag from atop its statehouse last July and Georgia minimized the rebel symbol on its flag early this year, only Mississippi continued to prominently display the emblem.
At a Jackson restaurant where supporters of the proposed redesign gathered tonight, the mood was disappointment. "We missed an opportunity to send a signal to the rest of the country about the great strides Mississippi has taken in recent years," said Blake Wilson, director of the Economic Council. "Now we're going to have to spend a lot more time trying to explain that Mississippi isn't what it once was."
In a state with a booming casino gambling industry, officials feared that a vote to retain the rebel emblem would prompt the NAACP to organize a tourism boycott like the one imposed on South Carolina before that state lowered its battle flag.
Tonight, Eugene Bryant, the Mississippi NAACP president, said he would meet with the group's national officials before deciding "on a specific course of action for the state of Mississippi."
The vote "really tells me that Mississippi is not ready to move forward in the 21st century," Bryant said. "Mississippi wants to remain in the eyes of the world a racist state."
Today's referendum resulted from political maneuvering that began last year, after the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that the state had no official state flag.
The flag with the Confederate emblem flying in front of the Capitol and other state buildings, familiar to generations of Mississippians, had been adopted by the legislature in 1894. But in deciding a lawsuit by the Mississippi NAACP and other plaintiffs, the court ruled last May that state lawmakers, probably inadvertently, had failed to readopt the flag when they overhauled the state code in 1906.
The events that followed the court decision showed that the old symbol remains a powerful one in Mississippi, as it does in other southern states -- an emblem not just of the long-dead Confederacy, but of a regional culture, a southern way of life that many here are determined to preserve, despite the historical taint of slavery and Jim Crow. The rebel cross would not be easily removed from the Mississippi flag. Even raising the question of whether to get rid of it was a delicate political matter.
After the court ruling, Musgrove and legislative leaders appointed a 17-member commission to design a new flag without the Confederate symbol. The commission had planned to present the new design to the legislature for approval. But the group's chairman, former governor William Winter (D), said it became apparent that many lawmakers -- even some who disliked the rebel emblem -- would vote to retain the old flag for fear of angering constituents who have a deep, emotional allegiance to the Confederate symbol.
So the commission recommended that lawmakers schedule a referendum on the new design -- an idea that the legislature, eager to steer clear of the flag issue, immediately embraced.
At the start of the 1990s, four former Confederate states -- Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi -- prominently displayed the rebel cross.
In Alabama, where Gov. George Wallace raised the Confederate battle flag over the Capitol in 1963 to protest the Kennedy administration's desegregation efforts, a state judge ruled in 1993 that only the state and U.S. flags could fly above the Capitol. Alabama's flag does not feature the rebel emblem.
South Carolina's flag also does not include the rebel symbol. The Confederate battle flag that was lowered from the Statehouse there last July had been raised in 1962, commemorating the Civil War.
Fearing an economic boycott similar to the one imposed on South Carolina, Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes (D) and legislative leaders dealt swiftly with their state's flag controversy early this year.
Since 1956, the height of the civil rights movement, the Confederate emblem had been a prominent feature of Georgia's flag. Lawmakers opposed to the symbol secretly designed a proposed new flag, greatly reducing the size of the emblem, then unveiled it for the legislature in January in what supporters of the rebel symbol called "a sneak attack." The new flag won quick approval.
That left only Mississippi still prominently displaying the battle cross.
"I understand that [the Confederate battle emblem] has been misused by the [Ku Klux] Klan and other extremists," said Faggert. "And I condemn that in the strongest possible language. I wish I could stop it, because the flag for me is very personal. It's about my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather. It's about my family and my heritage."