- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2000

A state commission yesterday recommended that Mississippi hold a referendum next year on whether to keep the Confederate battle flag symbol in the state flag.

The commission recommended to the state Legislature that the flag adopted in 1894 to honor the Confederate service of Mississippians in the Civil War should be abandoned in favor of a new design with 20 stars on a field of red to represent Mississippi's admission to the Union as the 20th state.

The commission's proposal for a public vote on the flag was welcomed by representatives of Confederate heritage groups.

"We want to keep the flag … but we want to put it to a referendum of the people," said Billy Ray Hankins, commander of the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). "That's the only fair way to do it to bring an end to the controversy."

The Legislature, which has sought to avoid the contentious flag issue, will meet Jan. 2.

In October, the SCV and other defenders of the current flag began collecting the 92,000 petition signatures needed to put a flag referendum on the ballot.

"One thing that will be very important will be the language in the referendum," Mr. Hankins said of the commission's recommendation.

Opponents of the current Mississippi flag opposed a referendum, preferring instead to leave the issue in the hands of the 17-member commission. The commission, chaired by former Democratic Gov. William Winter, was appointed by executive order of Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, also a Democrat.

The flag commission's hearings around the state drew large crowds in support of keeping the current flag. At the commission's first public hearing Oct. 19 in Tupelo, 64 of 67 citizens who addressed the panel spoke in favor of keeping the flag. Angry confrontations between pro- and anti-flag contingents marked a later hearing in the Gulf Coast city of Biloxi.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has led a crusade to eliminate the public display of Confederate symbols. In 1991, the NAACP passed a resolution describing the Confederate battle flag as an "ugly symbol of idiotic white supremacy" and "an odious blight upon the universe," and pledged the organization to "the removal of the Confederate flag from all public properties."

One Mississippi NAACP leader said the commission's proposed new flag design is too much like the current flag.

"It does not excite me at all," Obie Clark, president of the Meridian chapter of the NAACP, told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. "It sounds like they're just trying to massage that old battle flag."

The commission's proposal also drew criticism from William Earl Faggert, a spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

"This flag that they're proposing is meaningless," said Mr. Faggert, who also is executive director of the Mississippi Heritage Political Action Committee. "It has no history and no relevance to Mississippi, and it was conceived by a highly politicized and biased commission."

Mr. Faggert noted that the commission recommended the flag issue be voted on in June during municipal elections, which would "automatically leave out a huge segment of Mississippi's rural population," he said. His group has instead recommended an up-or-down vote on the 1894 design in November.

Earlier this year, under pressure from the NAACP, South Carolina lawmakers voted to remove the Confederate flag from atop the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C., where it had flown since 1962. But the NAACP vowed to continue its economic boycott of the state, because legislators voted to move the flag to a Confederate memorial on Statehouse grounds.

In 1993, the Georgia General Assembly rejected a proposal to change its state flag, which also incorporates the Confederate banner.

Mississippi was the second state to secede from the Union, after Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860. Mississippi's Jefferson Davis was the first and only president of the Confederacy.

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