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Confederate flag rally draws thousands, sparks gunfire in Florida

OCALA, Fla. -- Thousands of people have rallied in central Florida in support of flying the Confederate flag.

Police estimated 2,000 vehicles, mostly motorcycles and trucks adorned with the Civil War-era flag, took part in Sunday's gathering in Ocala. The event was being held to back a decision by Marion County in that area of central Florida to return the Confederate flag to a display outside its government complex.

Shots were fired during an argument over the flag, but no one was injured, CBS affiliate WKMG reported.

The Ocala Star-Banner reports participants wore shirts with phrases including "heritage not hate" and talked of defending Southern traditions, WKMG reported.

"This isn't about hatred. This isn't about racism. This isn't about black and white," a participant said. "We are not in hate of anybody. We just don't want our rights taken away to support our Southern heritage."

A replica of the General Lee car from "The Dukes of Hazard" TV show led the procession.

One of the participants, Rick Hart, defended flying the Confederate flag, saying "It's a history thing. The flag is also a military flag. It's not a race symbol."

The Florida rally came weeks after the shooting deaths of nine people at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, that spurred a national debate about the flying of the Confederate flag. On Friday, South Carolina removed the flag from a flagpole near its Statehouse. The man charged in the Charleston shooting is shown in pictures with the Confederate flag and police say he was motivated by hate.

The rally comes as Tennessee announced that it will celebrate the birthday of Confederate army general and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Meanwhile, the next big struggle over Old South symbols is shaping up in Mississippi, where the rebel x has fluttered over the Capitol and other public buildings for more than a century as part of the state flag.

Many in Mississippi are girding for a long, contentious debate about an emblem that has come under fresh scrutiny since the tragedy that ultimately propelled the change in South Carolina - the massacre of nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston. The white man charged in the slayings, Dylann Storm Roof, had posed with the Confederate battle flag in photos that were posted online before the attack that police say was motivated by racial hatred.

In both South Carolina and Mississippi, Confederate symbols have caused friction for decades.

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.

Mississippi NAACP president Derrick Johnson says the Confederate symbol should be erased from the Mississippi banner because it represents racial hatred and exclusion.

"We appeal to Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant to recognize the moral urgency for Mississippi to move without delay toward our next phase of progression," Johnson said Thursday. "It's time to write the next chapter of our history."

Johnson said Republican Bryant needs to show "the same moral courage and leadership" as other southern elected officials who advocate retiring the Confederate battle flag to museums, including the Republican governors of Alabama and South Carolina.

Alabama's Robert Bentley ordered Confederate flags removed from the state Capitol grounds in Montgomery after the Charleston slayings. And while South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley had previously supported keeping the battle flag flying outside the Capitol in Columbia, she reversed course in the past three weeks and pushed for a new law to remove the flag as a sign of reconciliation.

Mississippi is the only state that includes the Confederate battle emblem in its state flag; it's been there since 1894. In a 2001 statewide election, people voted nearly 2-to-1 to keep the design.

Meantime, in Congress, lawmakers are debating a measure to block the display of the flag at federal cemeteries.