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Why Mississippi AG will defend Confederate emblem on state flag

A lawsuit is challenging the presence of the Confederate battle emblem in Mississippi's state flag. But the state government is defending it.

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A couple leaves the grounds of the state Capitol in Jackson, Miss., in January 2016 after participating in a rally in support of keeping the Confederate battle emblem on the state flag. In Mississippi, the last state to display the Confederate battle emblem on its flag, some lawmakers want the divisive symbol removed, others want to punish public institutions that refuse to fly the banner and a state House leader suggests having two separate but equal flags: one with the rebel cross and one without.

(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

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A lawsuit has reignited debate over the presence of Confederate symbols in a Southern state, but in Mississippi, Southerners are mounting a legal defense of their Dixie flag.

A federal complaint filed Monday says the Confederate cross on the Mississippi flag is hate speech that endangers African Americans, according to Carlos Moore, a black attorney from Grenada, Miss., who cited the killing last summer of black church-goers in South Carolina.

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The government of Mississippi is preparing to defend their flag, however. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) said voters should decide whether their flag should be redesigned, not a “frivolous attempt to use the federal court system.” The state’s attorney general, Democrat Jim Hood, said his personal belief is that the flag hurts the state and it should change, but that will not prevent him from fulfilling his oath to defend his state’s laws.

Although several Southern flags reference elements of the Confederate “Stars and Bars,” Mississippi is the last state to keep the secessionist symbol in its entirety. While some Mississippians say flag the reflects poorly on the state’s image, many see it as a symbol of loyalty to their often misunderstood, even maligned, state history.

“It is frustrating that the United States as a whole lumps us all as a bunch of ignorant racists who are uneducated and don’t have shoes and go around having stereotypes about everybody else,” Bess Averett, director of the Southern Cultural Heritage Foundation in Vicksburg, Miss., told The Christian Science Monitor in 2006. “Hey, we have cars and trains like everyone else, so we could leave if we wanted.”

In Mississippi, traditionally known as a bottom-tier state for both its educational system and economy, with nearly 1 in 3 children living below the poverty line, people are digging in their heels in support of both their "Rebel Flag" and self-determination.

A previous state referendum – in 2001 – showed voters supported keeping the Confederate symbol by nearly a 2 to 1 margin, with a fairly equal voting split coming even from black neighborhoods, Patrik Jonsson reported for The Christian Science Monitor.  And in February, the Mississippi legislature killed flag-related bills, including efforts to both remove the Confederate symbol and force unwilling local governments and schools to fly it.

Where Mr. Moore sees “state-sanctioned hate speech,” as he wrote in his lawsuit, a contingency of Southerns see a symbol of their family’s heritage, or even of political protest, said Jeremy Gouge, a 44-year-old roofer, who has family ties to the South.

"I know there's things that happened to slaves and things. I can't control what other people have done," Mr. Gouge told the Associated Press. "What's the next flag that someone is going to say, 'We don't like that flag, let's take that one down?'"

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This report contains material from the Associated Press.