JACKSON, Miss. — It wasn't Gettysburg, but the Old South won a decisive battle Tuesday--and this time nobody can say it was close.
In an unprecedented referendum, Mississippi residents voted to keep the Confederate battle cross on their state flag instead of selecting a new banner without the controversial symbol. With 94% of the precincts reporting Tuesday night, two-thirds backed the old flag, ensuring that Mississippi continues as the lone state flying the Rebel standard.
The outcome was no surprise. The polls had shown intense enthusiasm for the distinctive blue cross with a red background, which many Mississippians see as an emblem of Southern pride.
"And we're sick of giving in," said Betty Sue Hoyle, a bridge-playing customer at the Crown Room in Indianola, a small town in the Mississippi Delta. "This flag never hurt anyone. And no matter what we do, black people will still be mad at us."
The flag dispute, one of the most divisive across the South, has cut almost straight along racial lines in every state where it has surfaced. Mississippi was no exception. Most whites interviewed at the polls said they voted to keep the Rebel cross. Most blacks said they wanted to take it off. The state is two-thirds white and one-third back, just like the vote split on the flag.
"This is really embarrassing," said Melody McAnally, a 26-year-old law student in Jackson. "We now get to be the only state in the country waving the shameful flag of slavery."
Both sides campaigned passionately, holding rallies, running radio commercials, banging on doors and setting up tables at supermarkets to register voters. One Rebel flag advocate trudged 43 days across the state with the flag of his ancestors on his back to generate support. Another stood nearly every day on the interstate outside of Jackson, the state capital, waving a gigantic banner.
The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and business groups pushed hard for a new flag and succeeded in enlisting the support of several high-profile Mississippi natives, including former Netscape Chief Executive Jim Barksdale and actor Morgan Freeman. Keeping the Confederate cross would reinforce the image of Mississippi as the deepest of the Deep South and a place divided, these groups said.
But getting enough people to part with a piece of their history proved an insurmountable task. The old flag dates to 1894 and the Rebel emblem to 1863, which was the height of the Civil War.
"I don't feel this way myself, but for a lot of people there's a genuinely felt loyalty to the past," said William Winter, a former Mississippi governor and one of the leading advocates of the new flag. "I think this time we did as well as we could. Hopefully, we won't be eternally ruled by our past."
In the end, turnout was moderate, according to preliminary numbers. It was a beautiful, crisp spring day--bright sun and a light breeze, perfect for the Delta's cotton planting season.
"I'd say we got somewhere between the numbers we see during a local election and the higher turnout we get when the presidency is on the line," said George Bishop, a Hinds County election official.
About a third of registered voters cast ballots, Bishop said.
The flag issue was the only one on the ballot, which showed two color pictures: the current state banner with red, white and blue stripes and the Confederate emblem in the upper left corner; and the proposed new flag, a nearly identical design except for a circle of 20 stars in the place of the St. Andrew's cross. The 20 stars stand for Mississippi's entry into the Union as the 20th state.
Last year, Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, appointed a commission to design an alternative flag. But after the state Legislature showed only lukewarm support for it, Musgrove and other politicians turned the issue over to a referendum. The vote cost the state, ranked 50th in per capita income, approximately $2.5 million.
No other state has ever held a special election on what to do with the Confederate flag.
Seven years ago, the governor of Alabama ordered the Confederate flag removed from the state Capitol and displayed instead at a memorial.
Last summer, South Carolina's state Legislature made the same call--though only after a well-publicized boycott.
And two months ago, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush took down a Confederate banner from a multi-flag display on the Capitol grounds and put it in a museum.
Rebel enthusiasts like Jim Giles, who runs a Jackson heritage group and proudly calls himself "unreconstructed," say it was about time the people made the decision. "It's a wonderful day for Dixie," he said.