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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The Confederate battle emblem on the Mississippi flag is prompting public protests and private discussions about race relations at a Southern legislative meeting.
Lawmakers and staff members from 15 states are in Biloxi, Mississippi, for the Southern Legislative Conference annual meeting, which started Saturday and goes through Wednesday.
Participants are discussing energy, public safety and other issues that cut across state lines. But most members of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus are boycotting the meeting because of the flag, and more than a dozen other people with a group called the Mississippi Rising Coalition protested the banner Saturday outside the meeting's opening reception in Gulfport.
Mississippi has the last state flag with the Confederate emblem — a red field topped by a blue tilted cross topped by 13 white stars. Critics see the symbol as a racist reminder of slavery and segregation, but supporters say it represents history and heritage.
About 50 black and white lawmakers from Mississippi, Georgia and other states had a meeting Monday to discuss how Confederate symbols affect race relations and the economy. Democrat George Flaggs, a black former Mississippi lawmaker who is now mayor of Vicksburg, took part in the meeting that was closed to the public and the media.
"I think it was an open, honest discussion with a lot of integrity," Flaggs said of the session that was moderated by staff members from the University of Mississippi's William Winter Institute on Racial Reconciliation.
Flaggs told The Associated Press that a white lawmaker from Georgia said removing the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag there several years ago has boosted the economy and helped improve race relations.
When the legislative meeting opened Saturday, protesters picketed with signs and speeches to denounce the Mississippi flag.
"This demonstration is not a demonstration of black against white, white against black. It's a demonstration of right against wrong," said Curley Clark, president of a local NAACP chapter on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
He noted that black and white people were demonstrating.
"We stand together against this racist flag," Clark said on a video posted to Facebook by the Mississippi Rising Coalition.
The Mississippi flag and other Confederate symbols have come under scrutiny since the June 2015 massacre of nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The man later convicted in the killings was an avowed white supremacist who had posed for photos holding the Confederate battle flag.
All eight of Mississippi's public universities and several counties and cities, including Biloxi, have stopped flying the flag because of the Confederate emblem.
Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn, a Republican, is chairman of the Southern Legislative Conference , and organizers expected about 1,300 people at the group's meeting. Democratic Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, chairwoman of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus, said the caucus boycott was designed to put pressure on Gunn.
Shortly after the Charleston killings, Gunn said the Confederate emblem is offensive and should be removed from the Mississippi flag. But he has also said there's no consensus in the state House to make the change.
Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .