Michael Nelson

Michael Nelson is contributing editor and columnist for The Daily Memphian, the political analyst for WMC-TV, and the Fulmer professor of political science at Rhodes College. His latest books are “Trump: The First Two Years” and “The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776-2018.”

Nelson: Why Mississippi needs a new state flag

By Updated: February 14, 2019 4:00 AM CT | Published: February 13, 2019 10:27 AM CT

Does Tennessee have the best flag of any state in the country?

That’s an easy one: yes.

With its three white stars encompassed in a blue circle against a field of red, the flag beautifully expresses the unity in our state’s diversity: West, Middle, East. As a state, we are three and, at our best, we are one.

Does Mississippi have the worst flag of any state in the country?

Another easy one, unfortunately. Because it’s another yes.

It’s hard to imagine any of the candidates for governor of Mississippi this year rhapsodizing about his state’s flag on inauguration day next January the way Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee did on his before declaring, “Tennesseans have much more that unites us than divides us.”

Not when it’s the only state flag in the country that still features the stars and bars of the Confederate battle standard.

In 2001, when Mississippi voted down a referendum to substitute a new flag for the old one by a margin of 64 percent to 36 percent, it still had the (admittedly pathetic) excuse of keeping company with Georgia, which also had a stars-and-bars-themed flag. But Georgia replaced it with its current flag in 2003.

Since then, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and the other six public universities in Mississippi, along with the city of Biloxi and multiple other towns, cities, counties, court rooms, and schools, have taken down their state’s flag.

Under these circumstances, it’s hard even to know what it means to be the state flag. Like the tree that falls soundlessly in the forest without anyone to hear it, a flag that communities refuse to fly isn’t really a flag at all. As a symbol many Mississippians can’t embrace, it’s just a piece of colored cloth.

From high on the flagpoles at the state’s interstate highway welcome centers, like the one just south of Memphis on I-55, the perverse message the stars and bars convey to many is, “You’re not welcome.”

Hopes for change were raised this year when more than a dozen bills to replace the flag were introduced in the Mississippi Legislature. All of them died earlier this month when they failed to obtain even a vote in committee from either the state Senate or House of Representatives.

The only consolation is that bills to force the state’s universities to fly the flag also died.

Getting rid of the flag means cutting oneself off from history, defenders of the Confederate icon argue. Certainly replacing it with an inadequate substitute could have that effect.

But as it happens, Mississippians have an alternative that respects the state’s best traditions while embracing the new realities of the present and the beckoning possibilities of the future.

The designer of the proposed flag is none other than the granddaughter of one of the state’s leading historical figures: the late John C. Stennis, who represented Mississippi in the United States Senate from 1947 to 1989 and chaired the Armed Services Committee for much of that time.

Stennis was a segregationist who, like many Mississippians, softened his views over time. After opposing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he voted to extend it in 1982.

Laurin Stennis is a Jackson artist. A few years ago, her frustration with her state’s flag boiled over. As she told, “I thought, ‘This is absurd that not every citizen of Mississippi can reach for the state flag without a moment of hesitation.’”

The way Tennesseans can, for example.

Stennis designed a beautiful new flag for her state that soon became known as the Stennis Flag. Bracketed by a red vertical bar on each end, the heart of the flag is a large blue star on a white background. Circling the central star are 19 small stars, representing the states already in the union at the time Mississippi was admitted in 1817.

You can see the Stennis Flag flying over Nielson’s Department Store on the town square in Oxford, as well as on numerous front porches throughout the state, especially in Jackson and along the coast.

If the political process is to offer the Stennis Flag a path to adoption, maybe it could come through this year’s gubernatorial election. What a gesture of unity in diversity it would be if the leading candidates of both parties were to embrace the cause.

That’s not impossible. Rob Rall, Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign manager in Hinds County (Jackson), told the Washington Post that he likes Stennis’ design and even flies the flag over his RV and has one on the bumper of his truck. Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that, “As a Christian, I believe our state’s flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed.”

But much as it pains a political columnist to say so, change need not rely on politics. The Stennis Flag is available for purchase online in the form of cloth, lapel pins, decals, T-shirts, ball caps, and license plates. If enough Mississippians start displaying it, it could become the state flag in reality, no matter what the Legislature does.

E Pluribus unum is our nation’s traditional motto. We conservatives are drawn to the unum – the unity – in that motto. Liberals often prefer the pluribus – the diversity.

As a result, conservatives tend to love flags, while liberals sometimes seem faintly embarrassed by them.

Wouldn’t it be great if all our flags allowed us to put aside the pluribus among us now and then and experience the unum?


Mississippi state flag Stennis Flag

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