No Flag, No State

No Flag, No State

Comedian Eddie Izzard once did a routine where he described the cunning nature of the British to “steal countries” by claiming they had a flag. He starts the bit by describing the British conquest of India and simulates a conversation between an indigenous person and a British soldier’s first encounter with each other. Izzard begins, “Well do you have a flag? No flag, no country. You can’t have one. Those are the rules that I just made up. Ha ha ha.”[1] To some, a flag is just a piece of cloth and to others it imparts significant social meaning. A flag may unify individuals working toward a common goal, provide a sense of identity or boast pride in one’s state. But a flag can also harken back to a time when civility was fraught with racial tension, as it was in the post-Civil War era. Controversies surrounding Confederate monuments, historically named districts and streets are flooding mainstream media across the country, including the state of Mississippi. Bearing the Confederate battle emblem, the Mississippi state flag served as a daily reminder of its participation in the Confederate nation led by Jefferson Davis. Its inclusion stood to demarcate a sense of nostalgia once expressed by poets during the Reconstruction era. Today, Mississippians perceive the state flag to be an affront to social justice. As a symbol, it marks the racialized attitudes of the past and continues to boast of that legacy when displayed over the state’s capitol building. The citizens said no more this summer. On June 30, 2020, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves signed a law to retire and remove the state flag from all public buildings. The state currently remains flagless.[2]

Former Mississippi state flag.

Since its inception, the Mississippi state flag has been in a perpetual state of motion. For a period of nearly 30 years after the end of the Civil War, the state was technically flagless. It is rumored that in 1894, Governor John Marshall Stone brought it to the attention of the Mississippi state Legislature.[3] (Insert flag). A joint legislative committee sent Stone a description of the desired flag as follows:

One with width two-thirds of its length, with the union square in width, two-thirds of the width of the flag; the ground of the union to be red and a broad blue saltier thereon bordered with white and emblazoned with thirteen (13) mullets or five-pointed stars, corresponding to the number of the original States of the Union; the field to be divided into three bars of equal width, the upper one blue, the center one white, the lower one red; the national colors; the staff surmounted with a spear-head and battle-axe below; the flag to be fringed with gold, and the staff gilded with gold. [4]

Senator E.N. Scudder of Mayersville, a member of the Joint Legislative Committee for a State Flag, is believed to be the designer of the flag and it was signed into law by Governor Stone as the official state flag on February 7, 1894. Twelve years later, the law establishing the flag was repealed citing a legal oversight requiring the Legislature’s approval.[5] The 1906 repeal temporarily rendered the state without an officially approved flag. Nevertheless, Mississippians readily adopted the flag without much regard for this logistical error. In a 1924 address to the annual convention of the Mississippi Division, United Daughters of the Confederacy, Fayssoux Scudder Corneil, daughter of Senator Scudder, recalled “that her father designed the flag and included the Beauregard battle flag in the canton corner to honor the Confederate soldier.”[6]

For over one hundred years, the emblem has served as a cloth Lost Cause memorial. It had been a symbol of Southern pride for some, while causing pain for others. Several advocacy groups lobbied for an official change to the state flag. In 2001, Mississippi voters overwhelmingly defeated a referendum to change the state flag by a margin of 2 to 1.[7] This underscored the importance of the flag to many white Mississippians who refuse to let naysayers force them to upend their understanding of state history. And yet, this defeat reflected the desires of some but not all residents. Black and white Mississippians continued their efforts. They have rallied around the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and successfully pressured Governor Tate Reeves to respond to the people. At the end of June 2020, he signed the historic legislation that officially retired and removed all state flags across Mississippi public spaces.[8]

Here lies the issue for a state that wrestles with the nostalgia of the Civil War by some with those who endured the negative consequences of the symbolism imbued in the Confederate battle emblem. This ongoing debate is being held among historians, scholars, the general public and certainly within the school system. Inquisitive students are asking their teachers, “How did we get here? What meaning does a flag convey? Why has it taken 126 years to replace?” All of these critical questions transport us back to the era of Reconstruction and the often overlooked role of  poetry.

Reconstruction Era poets contributed to a Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War. Despite resulting in defeat, the poetic verses served to reignite the old sentiments which captured the hearts of white Southerners, both past and present. Rather than providing reconciliation for modern Southerners, the poems fueled the ongoing cultural wars that have become increasingly politicized today. In 1866, Anna Peyre Dinnies penned a poem entitled “The Confederate Flag” to mourn the loss of the war. The Louisianian poet wrote:

Take that banner down, ‘tis weary,

Round its staff, ‘tis dreary,

 

Furl it, hide it, let it rest;

For there’s not a man to wave it-

For there’s not a soul to lave it

In the blood that heroes gave it.

Furl it, hide it, let it rest.

 

Take that banner down, ‘tis tattered;

Broken is its staff, and shattered;

And the valiant hearts are scattered

Over whom it floated high.[9]

Dinnies waxed nostalgia for Southern states in the aftermath of the Civil War.  She romanticized the war and the men who fought for the Confederacy. The Confederate battle flag was, to many, emblematic of the courage displayed by Confederate soldiers.  Its incorporation to the state flag provided a lasting memory for generations of Mississippians to follow. Written over 150 years ago Dinnies’ poem captures the sense of loss expressed by current residents of Mississippi who are grieving the removed state flag while still obscuring those Mississippians who never accepted the Lost Cause legacy. As such, the Reconstruction era poem has resonance in the present debate.

The Summer of 2020 events ushered a new chapter in the history of the Mississippi state flag. Nationwide protests over the injustices that Black Americans face have rekindled debates. Laurin Stennis, granddaughter of Miss. Senator John Stennis, was commissioned to work with the legislature on developing the new state flag.[10] In an interview with the Carbon County News, she explained that “the reintroduction of the Confederate symbol in 1894 was a ‘giant reassertion of white supremacy’ and carried out in ‘response to Federal decisions that they didn’t agree with. Georgia did the same thing.’”[11] The resulting Stennis flag prototype, however, received mixed reviews. Supporters praised the removal of the Confederate battle emblem. Opponents professed their fears that the design continued to erase the state’s history. The issue of the Mississippi flag even extended beyond state borders. At the Red Lodge Broadway Flag Committee (RLBFC) virtual presentation with Laurin Stennis, one attendee voiced his opposition to the redesign process: “Every society or country has some issues in their past concerning their national symbols in their flag, every country has a skeleton in their cupboard.”[12] Another attendee countered: “Exclusivity is to all (but) is not demonstrated by a racist or derisive symbol and the American flag promotes unity.”[13] While prompting fierce local and national debate, the official selection process has continued.

One of two final flags designs considered by the Commission to Redesign the Mississippi State Flag.

In early September 2020, the Commission to Redesign the Mississippi State Flag submitted two final designs. Members of the committee voted on their preferred design in a non-binding public poll. Instead of the Stennis prototype, members chose a flag designed by Rocky Vaughan.  Referred to as the “New Magnolia Flag,” the final design was then sent to the governor and legislature.[14] Mississippians will voice their approval, or not, on the November 3rd ballot when the fate of the proposed redesigned state flag will be determined.  Until then, Mississippi will remain flagless once more.

[1] Eddie Izzard, “Dress to Kill,” filmed June 1999 at San Francisco, CA, stand up comedy routine, 1:54.08.

[2] Rick Rojas, “Mississippi Governor Signs Law to Remove Flag with Confederate Emblem,” New York Times, June, 30, 2020.

[3] David G. Sansing, “Flags Over Mississippi,” Mississippi History Now, a Mississippi Historical Society Online Publication, accessed September 5, 2020, http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us/articles/105/flags-; Historians widely accept sources which point to Scudder as the designer of the flag, though this is not explicitly stated.

[4] House Journal, 1894 (Clarion-Ledger Publishing Co., 1894), 193-194, 350-351.

[5] Sansing, “Flags Over Mississippi.”

[6] Sansing, “Flags Over Mississippi.”

[7] Anne Marshall, “Mississippi’s Confederate flag is gone- but a legacy of white supremacist policy remains,” NBCNews.com, July 1, 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/mississippi-s-confederate-flag-gone-legacy-white-supremacist-policy-remains-ncna1232690/

[8] Marshall, “Mississippi’s Confederate flag is gone.”

[9] Anna Peyre Dinnies, “The Confederate Flag,” poem, 1866, accessed in the Newberry Digital Collection, https://dcc.newberry.org/items/the-confederate-flag.

[10] Alastair Baker, “Mississippi flag debate unfurls pros and cons,” The Carbon County News, https://www.carboncountynews.com/content/mississippi-flag-debate-unfurls-pros-and-cons.

[11] Baker, “Mississippi flag debate unfurls pros and cons.”

[12] Baker, “Mississippi flag debate unfurls pros and cons.”

[13] Baker, “Mississippi flag debate unfurls pros and cons.”

[14] “Mississippi Department of Archives & History,” “State Flag Commission Picks New Magnolia Flag for November Ballot,” accessed September 2, 2020. https://www.mdah.ms.gov/news/state-flag-commission-picks-new-magnolia-flag-november-ballot.

One Reply to “No Flag, No State”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.