Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze supports changing state flag

HOOVER, Ala. (AP) Mississippi football coach Hugh Freeze says he supports removing the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag.

''While I'm not a political figure, I strongly believe it's time we move in a different direction and change the flag,'' Freeze said Thursday before appearing at Southeastern Conference Media Days.

Freeze, 45, grew up in Mississippi and said he has ''great appreciation'' for people who have pride in the state's heritage, but ''that symbol has been hijacked by some groups that mean ill will toward some people.''

Debate about Mississippi's flag and other Confederate symbols reignited after the June 17 massacre of nine worshippers at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. The man charged in the slayings had posed with the Confederate battle flag in photos posted online before what police said was a racially motivated attack.

Both Ole Miss and Mississippi State have already issued statements in support of changing the state flag, which has featured the Confederate emblem since 1894. In a 2001 statewide election, voters chose by a nearly 2-to-1 margin to keep the emblem on the flag rather than replace it with a circle of 20 stars to signify Mississippi's status as the 20th state in the union.

Supporters embrace the battle flag as a reminder of ancestors who fought for the Confederacy or as an emblem of regional pride. Critics see it as a symbol of a defiant white supremacist society that fought to perpetuate slavery and segregation.

Days after the Charleston attacks, Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn became the first high-profile state elected official to say the Confederate symbol should be removed from the flag because he considers it divisive. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has said he respects the 2001 election results, but if the issue is to be reconsidered again, he thinks it should be done by another statewide election rather than by the Legislature.

Ole Miss fans, for decades, waved Confederate flags at football games and other sports events to cheer the Rebels, but coaches complained the flag hurt recruiting. In 1997, then-Chancellor Robert Khayat banned hand-held flagpoles from the stadium, and the flag has mostly disappeared from games since then.

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Associated Press writer Emily Wagster Pettus contributed to this report from Jackson, Mississippi.

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