Why Mississippi is Voting On A New State Flag: BGOV Q&A

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Mississippi voters will decide whether “In God We Trust” under a white magnolia flower should replace a recently retired state flag bearing the Confederate battle emblem.

A state commission chose the proposed design Wednesday on a vote of 8-1.

“All of my life Mississippi has been at the bottom, 50th, in whatever category you can think of. On Nov. 3, I think that will change. We won’t move to the top but I can assure you we will move,” commission chairman Reuben Anderson, the first Black justice to serve on the Mississippi Supreme Court, said after the vote.

“We’ll send a message to all of America that we’re open for business. We’ll send a message that we live in the future and not in the past.”

Image provided by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History
Proposed design for a new Mississippi state flag

The former flag design had been selected by White state lawmakers in 1894 as part of a backlash against the power gained by Black citizens during Reconstruction. Voters overwhelmingly chose to keep that flag in a 2001 referendum.

It continued to be the official flag until July 1, 2020, flying over a state where 38% of the residents are Black.

What finally led to the change?

Legislative proposals to change the flag quietly failed year after year until June, when momentum built during nationwide protests over the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Floyd died while an officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Institutions wielding considerable power in the Deep South — NASCAR, Walmart, churches, and college sports leaders included — also stood up, publicly calling for Mississippi to make a change. The Republican-led Legislature passed a measure creating a commission to design a new flag, despite reluctance from many party members, including Gov. Tate Reeves.

“It is fashionable in some circles to say our ancestors were all evil. I reject that notion. I also reject the elitist world view that these United States are anything but the greatest nation in the history of mankind. I reject the mobs tearing down statues of our history—North and South, Union and Confederate, Founding Fathers and veterans,” Reeves said before signing the bill June 30.

See also: Text of the Mississippi Flag Law

How was the new design chosen?

Nearly 3,000 designs were reviewed by a nine-member commission was appointed by Reeves, the speaker of the Mississippi House and the lieutenant governor to oversee the process. After several meetings, and literally running five designs up a flagpole to see how they looked in real life, the commission settled on the magnolia.

That’s the design up for consideration on the Nov. 3 ballot.

The law setting up the ballot initiative requires the new flag to include the phrase “In God We Trust,” and it forbids incorporation of the Confederate battle emblem.

If voters reject the design, the commission goes back to the drawing board.

Why the magnolia?

The magnolia is Mississippi’s state flower. On the proposed flag, It’s surrounded by 20 small stars representing Mississippi becoming the 20th state.

At the top of the circle is a large star comprised of five diamond shapes, reflecting the state’s Choctaw heritage. The diamond pattern is found throughout traditional baskets and beadwork, as well as on rattlesnakes native to the state, Cyrus Ben, chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, told the other committee members in an Aug. 14 meeting.

The commission had discussed whether the magnolia evokes a romanticized image of the pre-war South that glosses over its history of exploitation and racism. When Mississippi seceded in 1861, the state flew a flag bearing an image of a magnolia tree. “It’s way less troubling than if they put a cotton boll on the flag,” said Ted Ownby, a University of Mississippi history professor.

“Almost anything is going to be an improvement over a state flag that includes a Confederate battle flag,” Ownby said in a phone interview. “It is progress in what it is not.”

Photographer: Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images
Former state flag of Mississippi

Mississippi’s divisive history and its poor national ranking for quality-of-life issues make it “an exceptionally difficult state for which to find a unifying symbol,” Ownby said in a phone interview. Mississippi ranked 50th in the 2019 America’s Health Rankings annual report exceeding the national averages for infant mortality, obesity and cardiovascular disease. Mississippi’s history also is rife with events such as the lynching and murder of Emmet Till that took place in 1955.

He noted that a 2017 postal stamp marking Mississippi’s bicentennial featured the hands of blues musician Jimmy “Duck” Holmes. The commission, however, rejected designs that would have highlighted Mississippi’s contributions to American music.

What’s flying in the meantime?

Mississippi officially doesn’t have a state flag while awaiting a final decision from voters. At the U.S. Capitol, it was replaced with one bearing the state seal over blue, white and red stripes.

Mississippi has gone without a state flag before. The “Magnolia Flag” adopted at secession was dropped after the war, and wasn’t replaced until 1894.

Do other flags still show Confederate imagery?

While Mississippi dropped the battle emblem flag widely condemned as a racist symbol, four other state flags still include subtle references to the Confederacy: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, and Georgia.

Some residents formed a group called Let Mississippi Vote in an effort to give voters the option to keep the flag with the Confederate emblem.

They need to collect at least 106,000 signatures statewide to let voters to consider the old flag and three other designs: the magnolia chosen by the commission, a bicentennial flag featuring the state seal, and a design by Jackson, Miss., artist Laurin Stennis.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jennifer Kay in Miami at jkay@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com; Adam Schank at aschank@bgov.com

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