ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Since the man accused of killing nine African-Americans in a South Carolina church last summer was seen posing with the Confederate battle flag, there's been a movement to rethink the reverence for relics of the old South. The fight is now moving to federal court in Mississippi where the state flag includes the Confederate emblem. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: At a recent rally on the steps of the Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson, dozens of protesters shouted their opposition to the flag waving atop the building.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Bring it down. Bring it down. Bring it down.
ELLIOTT: Mississippi is the only remaining U.S. state that still has Confederate imagery in its state flag. The upper left corner depicts the Confederate battle emblem.
CARLOS MOORE: I see something that stands for treason. I see something that stands for secession. I see something that stands for lynching. I see something that stands for slavery.
ELLIOTT: Carlos Moore is an African-American lawyer who is suing the state over the flag design, arguing it's unconstitutional.
MOORE: The flag with that emblem is a vestige of slavery.
ELLIOTT: His lawsuit alleges the Mississippi flag violates the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, and the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection. Moore says the flag discriminates against African-Americans and subjects them to being second-class citizens.
Mississippi has the highest percentage of black residents of any state - 37 percent. Moore says keeping the Confederate banner sends a clear message to the minority.
MOORE: It's not about hunting. It's not about fishing. It's not about sweet tea. It has to be about white supremacy.
ELLIOTT: The debate in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South has been building since nine people were killed in what authorities describe as a racially motivated attack on a historic black church in Charleston. South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from State Capitol grounds. Alabama's governor did the same. New Orleans will soon take down several Confederate monuments from prominent display.
But there's also been pushback. Several state legislatures are considering heritage protection laws. South Carolina State Representative Justin Bamberg came to Jackson for the rally against the state flag. He was a friend of the pastor and state senator killed in Charleston.
JUSTIN BAMBERG: When we lost a colleague, when we lost all these innocent people, it clicked, and they realized that this flag actually does mean hate.
ELLIOTT: Bamberg says if South Carolina could bring the flag down, it can be done elsewhere. Some local governments and colleges here have already stopped flying the state flag, including the University of Mississippi, which has long struggled to reckon with old South symbolism. But bills to change the flag or put to a statewide vote stalled in the legislature even after the Republican speaker of the house changed his position and called for the Confederate emblem to go.
Mississippi has been through this before. Fifteen years ago, voters, by a nearly 2 to 1 margin, decided to keep the flag. Leading the fight to preserve it was Greg Stewart, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Today, Stewart is executive director of Beauvoir on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
GREG STEWART: Beautiful view.
ELLIOTT: The sprawling estate overlooking the Gulf of Mexico was the post-Civil War home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Now it's a shrine. The state and Confederate flags fly here over the Spanish moss-draped oak trees.
STEWART: Well, we lost on the battlefield. But you know, I think Jefferson Davis is the one that said the truth, you know - you could crush it to the ground - will rise again.
ELLIOTT: Stewart rejects the latest call for changing Mississippi's flag.
STEWART: When you're asking me to take it down because those people were so bad, those people were my ancestors, and it's hard for me to believe that they were monsters.
ELLIOTT: He says the lawsuit alleging the state flag as a vestige of slavery is wrong.
STEWART: Nobody is talking about going back to slavery. There are no - there's no slaves left, and there's no slave masters.
ELLIOTT: Stewart another flag supporters are trying to get a ballot initiative that would protect the current Mississippi flag in the state constitution. But opponents are also seeking their own initiative. Ronnie Crudup of Jackson says it's time for a change.
RONNIE CRUDUP: Good-thinking people want a flag that represents everybody.
ELLIOTT: A spokesman for Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant calls the civil rights lawsuit over the flag a, quote, "frivolous attempt to use the federal court system to usurp the will of the people who should decide what the state flag is or is not." Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Jackson, Miss. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: While the Confederate imagery in Mississippi's state flag is clear, the design of Georgia's state flag is similar to the first national flag of the Confederacy. But Georgia's flag has the state seal in its upper left corner, not the Confederate battle emblem.]
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.