- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 26, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The state chamber of commerce has unveiled a banner to celebrate Mississippi’s bicentennial.

Mississippi Economic Council president Blake Wilson said it is not intended to replace the state flag that’s been in use since 1894. Some MEC leaders in the past have said the Confederate battle emblem on the state flag is racially divisive and hurts economic-development efforts.

Wilson said the bicentennial banner could be flown along with the state or American flags. It was unfurled for the first time Wednesday during the MEC Hobnob, a casual gathering of businesspeople.

“It is not a flag,” Wilson said.

The banner has three wide horizontal stripes - blue, white and red. A state seal is in the center. To the left of the seal are the words “Established 1817,” and to the right are, “2017 Bicentennial.”

Mississippi has the last state flag that includes the Confederate battle emblem - a red field topped by a blue tilted cross with 13 white stars. Voters chose to keep the flag in a 2001 statewide election, but the design has come under increased scrutiny since the June 2015 slayings of nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The white man charged in the shooting deaths had previously posed, in photos published online, holding the Confederate battle flag.

Seven of Mississippi’s eight public universities, several cities and counties and some public schools have stopped flying the state flag, many of them since the Charleston shooting.

Critics say the Confederate battle emblem is a reminder of slavery and segregation and has no place on the flag of a state with a 38 percent black population, the largest percentage of any state in the nation. Defenders call it a symbol of heritage, and some have held flag-waving protests the past several months on university campuses.

This year, some lawmakers proposed either changing the flag or punishing universities and local governments that don’t fly it. House Speaker Philip Gunn, a Republican who had advocated change, said he couldn’t find consensus among House members to push any of the bills into law, and they all died.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: https://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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