Days after Dylann Roof attacked a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., where police say he shot and killed nine people because of the color of their skin, activists and politicians nationwide turned their anger toward the Confederate flag that flies on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse in Columbia.
The flag, emblematic of slavery to most but a symbol of states' rights and Southern pride to others, has become something of a political football in the wake of the shootings. President Obama and several candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 called for the "stars and bars" to be taken down.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley joined that chorus Monday, when she called on the state's Legislature to vote for the flag to be taken down as soon as possible. While frustration with the battle flag has been palpable since last Wednesday's shootings, South Carolina isn't the only state that has flown a flag adorned with the secession-era relic in recent years.
The Confederate battle flag has hung in the upper left-hand corner of Mississippi's state flag since 1894. In 2001, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, Netscape's chief executive, and actor Morgan Freeman led a campaign to change that, pushing an initiative onto the state's ballot that year that could have removed the Confederate emblem from the state flag.
They lost, badly. Two-thirds of Mississippi voters backed the old flag, leaving it the only state in the United States to have the Confederate symbol as part of its official state flag. While South Carolina flies the "Dixie" flag on the statehouse grounds, it is not the official state banner.
A petition to change Mississippi's state flag has gained more than 4,500 signatures on moveon.org.
Jennifer Gunter, a Mississippi native who now lives in Columbia, started the petition two days after the shootings at Emanuel AME church in Charleston. She was involved in campaigns to change her home state's flag in 2001 and hopes the renewed national attention will lead Mississippi's lawmakers and voters to reconsider the issue.
“I hope to see Mississippi change our flag and move into the present as a unified group who can feel proud to display our state flag," she said.
On Monday night, Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn issued a statement on Twitter calling for the flag to be changed.
"We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us,” Gunn said. "As a Christian, I believe our state's flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed. We need to begin having conversations about changing Mississippi's flag."
After making some last-minute deals with Republican legislators, including promising to hang a picture of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in the state Capitol, former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes was able to sign legislation that greatly reduced the prominence of the Confederate battle emblem on the state's flag.
For 45 years, the state flag was dominated by an image of the Confederate cross. But the state Senate passed a 2001 resolution that called for a new design, composed largely of Georgia's state seal across a field of royal blue. A banner running along the bottom boasted several historical flag designs, including the version that included the cross.
The debate sparked a dramatic standoff between Atlanta-area Democrats and rural Republican senators on the statehouse floor, but the bill eventually passed by a vote of 34 to 22.
In 2003, the flag was again changed, this time to a version without any depiction of the Confederate cross.
In 1994, former Alabama Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. had the Confederate flag removed from the state Capitol, where it flew as then-Gov. George C. Wallace sent state troopers to clash with Martin Luther King Jr. on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965.
But Alabama's state flag itself is still sometimes cause for controversy, as the design is generally thought to be a representation of the Confederate cross, according to the state's Department of Archives and History.
Dr. Thomas Owen, the former department director, concluded in 1915 that the flag design was meant to "preserve in permanent form some of the more distinctive features of the Confederate battle flag, particularly the St. Andrew’s cross."Follow @JamesQueallyLAT on Twitter for breaking news.
6:54 p.m.: This article was updated to note that the current version of Georgia's flag has no depiction of the Confederate cross.
6:19 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Mississippi’s speaker of the House.