Vexing Vexillology Mississippi axes racist flag, adds divisive motto

As Mississippians for justice and equality applaud the move to retire their state flag, which, since 1894, has prominently featured the Confederate battle emblem, humanists are a bit thrown by the state’s plan for an alternative.

On June 27, amidst ongoing demonstrations for racial justice across the United States, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves announced that if the state legislature quickly passed a bill to retire the flag, he’d sign it into law. They did so the next day, and on June 30 Governor Reeves made it official.

The new law stipulates that Reeves, Lt. Governor Delbert Hosemann, and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn each name three people to a nine-member commission to select a new flag design by September 14. On November 3 they’ll run it up the proverbial flagpole and see if voters salute it. If a majority of Mississippians don’t vote for the new design, it’s back to the drawing board.

Regardless, according to the new law, “In God We Trust” must appear on the flag. “The people of Mississippi, black and white, and young and old, can be proud of a banner that puts our faith front and center,” Reeves said. “We can unite under it. We can move forward together.”

Eric Reisman, president of the Mississippi Humanist Association (MHA), disagrees. “Though the 1894 flag was a divisive symbol long in need of replacement, the new flag will still not embody the values of all Mississippians. This was a missed opportunity on behalf of our state to bring everyone together under a unifying banner.” Reisman says the MHA (an active chapter of the American Humanist Association since 2015) will encourage its membership to oppose the motto’s inclusion and voice support for some alternative. “We hope to have a petition online soon for others to share their support as well. And, of course, we will encourage people to call or write their elected officials.”

One design considered by many as the obvious choice to become Mississippi’s new state flag is known as the Hospitality flag. Originally dubbed “Declare Mississippi,” it was designed in 2014 by artist Laurin Stennis, granddaughter of the late US Senator John C. Stennis (D-MS). The flag features a circle of nineteen small blue stars surrounding a larger one on a white background—symbolizing Mississippi as the twentieth state in the union—flanked by two vertical red bars. Thousands of these flags already fly in the state, including at banks, businesses, and private homes, and last year a specialty license plate was approved featuring the flag and its theme, “History + Hope + Hospitality.”

The Hospitality flag 

Up until a few weeks ago the Hospitality flag was commonly called the Stennis flag, and its designer was active in promoting it. But as momentum grew to excise the Confederate symbol on the existing state flag, Stennis announced she was stepping back from that effort given her grandfather’s segregationist past. (Senator Stennis opposed the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education and voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other civil rights legislation.)

“Mississippi will soon know all the benefits and joy that come with having a state flag that is evocative, not provocative,” Laurin Stennis said, noting that the six years she’d worked toward that goal had been one of the best experiences of her life. “In a continued effort to be of service, I will be stepping away from this endeavor as I understand the hurt and potential harm my last name may cause.”

Stennis did weigh in on the issue of “In God We Trust.” I asked her if it would change her vision to have that motto incorporated onto her flag, which she designed in consultation with vexillologist and author of Good Flag, Bad Flag, Ted Kaye. (Vexillogy is the study of the history, symbolism, and usage of flags.)

“The hospitality flag was designed based on the proven tenets of good flag design, which include: no lettering, seals, or numbers,” she said, adding:

It’s one thing when you reject a flag; it is quite another when a flag rejects you. It is my hope that Mississippi will not repeat the mistake of rejecting any of its people via its flag any longer. If Mississippians wish to make an additional symbolic representation of faith, there are other flags in existence for that.

The recently passed legislation does require any new flag to include the motto, and, as Stennis acknowledges, “Project Blitz is well underway here and across the country.” Incidentally, two other states, Florida and Georgia, feature “In God We Trust” on their state flags.

According to a CBS News affiliate in Mississippi, the commission appointed to pick a new flag design will include members of the Mississippi Economic Council, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and experts with art backgrounds. Is there any chance they might push back on the motto? What about going an originalist route—Mississippi’s first flag (featuring a Magnolia tree) and the nation’s first motto, E pluribus unum? Except that the Magnolia flag was commissioned by and designed in 1861 for the newly seceded republic of Mississippi. (“Out of many one” and secession don’t exactly mesh.) Or the Hospitality flag with its theme, History + Hope + Hospitality?

“It would be an absolute shame to unravel the momentum this flag already enjoys by rejecting or altering it,” says Stennis, adding she’ll be interested to see how it all plays out. Given that voters rejected replacing the Confederate-themed flag by a 2-1 margin in 2001, it’s hard to say what they’ll embrace now.

One thing’s for sure: excising a symbol overwhelmingly associated with white supremacy from a state flag, a context intended to elevate and honor, was of the utmost importance, and Mississippi did that. Yet, adding “In God We Trust” is a divisive move in the year 2020, when more and more Americans have ceased affiliating with any religion and within that demographic feel increasingly confident to express their nonbelief in any god.