- Associated Press - Thursday, November 3, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The last of Mississippi’s eight public universities has stopped displaying the state flag that prominently features the Confederate battle emblem.

Delta State University President Bill LaForge announced the decision Thursday. He said the university acted because state government hasn’t moved to change the flag. The university called for a different state banner in 2015, and LaForge said again Thursday that Mississippi needs a flag symbolizing unity, not divisiveness.

“It is - in reality or perception - a barrier to progress,” LaForge told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

He said university police lowered the sole state flag on campus at the close of business Thursday and brought it to his office; from there, it will go to university archives. Delta State flew it alongside large American and university flags at one end of its main quadrangle in Cleveland, facing a state highway.

Mississippi has the last state flag including the Confederate battle emblem - a red field topped by a blue tilted cross with 13 white stars. Voters retained the flag in a 2001 statewide referendum, but scrutiny has intensified since the June 2015 slayings of nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The white man charged in the shooting deaths previously posed in photos holding the Confederate battle flag.

Mississippi’s three historically black public universities stopped flying the state flag years ago. Since the shootings, the state’s five formerly white-only public universities have abandoned the flag. After Mississippi State University and the Mississippi University for Women lowered the flag this summer, the 3,600-student Delta State was the last displaying it.

“It increased the intensity of the conversation and put the spotlight on us,” LaForge said.

In the place of the state flag, Delta State plans to fly a separate banner designed by the state chamber of commerce to mark Mississippi’s bicentennial as a state. The Mississippi Economic Council unveiled the banner last week, saying it wasn’t meant to replace the state flag.

“We said, ‘Let’s put something up in its place that shows respect for the state,’” LaForge said.

Gov. Phil Bryant said in August that he disagrees with the universities’ decision to remove the flag.

K-12 schools are required to fly the flag by law, but some public schools ignore the requirement. Other public agencies aren’t required to display the flag, and a number of cities and counties stopped. Others have retained it. Earlier this week, the Tupelo City Council voted, along racial lines, to keep flying the current banner.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy .

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