Mississippi’s 126-year-old flag is to be retired

  After years of controversy the state legislature voted with overwhelming margins to retire Mississippi’s State Flag. The flag is horizontal bars of red, white and blue with a representation of the Confederate Battle Flag set in the upper left corner.

  The Confederate Battle Flag has long been a point of contention.

  As the current legislative session was entering its final hours, legislators voted first to suspend the rules allowing a bill to come forward that had not been on the docket. Second, they voted on a bill to retire the flag, adopted by the legislature in 1894. This clears the way for a commission to select a new flag design to be established.

  With the Governor’s signature enacting the bill into law, public institutions now have 15 days to remove the retired flag.

  WLOX reports before it appears on a ballot in November, the new flag design will be decided by a flag committee of nine people selected by Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, Lieutenant Governor Delbert Hosemann and Governor Tate Reeves. A new flag must be designed by that appointed nine-member commission and presented no later than September 14th. It will then need a majority vote to be accepted as Mississippi’s third official flag.

  This will be the first of Mississippi’s three flags to be selected by voters.

  Lawmakers plan to put a choice of flags on the ballot for the November Presidential Election. Presumably, the winning design must receive the same majority as any other initiative or candidate – 50-percent plus one vote. If none of the designs receive this majority, the selection of a new flag will be voted on during some future election.

  The first official flag was adopted by the state legislature in 1861. It was a white flag with a magnolia tree in the center and a red border with red fringe. In the upper left corner was a white star in a blue field, representing succession from the Union.

  The 1894 flag is the state’s second official flag. It was adopted by the legislature and the governor with little press coverage and without direct voter approval.

    A generation removed from the Civil War, the number of Confederate soldiers applying for state pensions increased in the 1890s, as did calls for a state-funded facility to provide greater assistance to the state’s aging veterans, according to a history of the flag written by Stephanie Rolph.  In his State of the State address on January 7, 1894, Rolph said, Governor Stone outlined his agenda for the upcoming legislative session. Among his priorities were tax codes and the future of industry in the state, both critical to funding the increasing number of pension applications from aging Confederate veterans. In response, Stone pledged in his January address to “cheerfully sanction any proper legislation for the benefit of the Confederate soldiers and sailors, and their widows.” He made this pledge in the midst of an unprecedented number of lynchings in the state, primarily aimed at African American men.

  There were two primary issues confronting legislators that session. One was a Confederate soldier’s home, and the second was establishment of a state penal farm. As the session progressed, the state penal farm gained more support than did

 the Confederate veteran’s home.

  On January 22, 1894, amidst fear that the Confederate cause would be lost with the death of the state’s aging Confederate veterans and disappointment regarding the state’s ability

 to properly support its ex-soldiers, Stone asked the state legislature to establish a state flag and a coat of arms as an act of good faith toward the reassurances of “patriotic ardor” and “State pride.”

   In a letter issued from the executive office to members of the state’s Senate and House of Representatives, Stone recounted the fact that only during the years 1861-1865 did Mississippi have an official flag and coat of arms. Those years, as most Mississippians would have understood, were the very years in which Mississippi fought a civil war alongside 10 other southern slaveholding states in pursuit of independence from the United States of America. Stone, however, did not reference the war by name. He only indicated that “a state convention” in 1861 had approved a flag that contained, “a white ground, a magnolia in the center, a blue field in the upper left hand corner, the flag surrounded with a red border and a red fringe at the extremity.” The statute establishing the flag and coat of arms, he explained, was duly withdrawn at “another convention” in August 1865.   

   However, Stone did not indicate that this convention represented the first meeting Mississippians attended after the Civil War and that it had convened under orders from President Andrew Johnson to abolish slavery, approve the Thirteenth Amendment, and extend voting rights to black male property owners. The 1865 convention failed to meet any of those directives, but its withdrawal of the wartime flag and coat of arms signified an end to the state’s active rebellion.

  The governor’s support for a flag promised to offer unity and recognition as support for the proposed penal farm became a more pressing priority. However, the unity for which Stone advocated was limited to white Mississippians. On the same day that Stone called for a new flag, he reminded legislators to stay focused on critical issues—tariff reform, an unequal tax code and “repealing the federal election laws which, as long as they remain on our statues [sic] are a menace to the South.” The voting laws to which he referred had enabled black male voting in the state, igniting white-driven violence against black Mississippians throughout the state.

  The Confederate Battle Flag and its inclusion within the design of Mississippi’s state flag was an effort to unify white political, economic and social divisions in the state, at a time when political schisms threatened to destroy the Democratic coalition that prevailed in Mississippi during 1875 and effectively ended Reconstruction in the state.   

   As Confederate veterans aged and a second generation of white Mississippians matured, the memory of the Civil War and the Confederate cause merged to form a universal celebration of white sacrifice that ultimately erased the basis for Mississippi’s secession: the defense and continued protection of slavery. Doing so not only reassured Confederate veterans who feared that their service and cause would be forgotten, but it also shored-up the persistence of white supremacy as the state proceeded to eliminate voting rights, deny access to educational equality, and strip basic safety from black communities.

  Over the past 126 years attitudes have changed significantly and time has redefined the Confederate cause as something quite different than it was in 1861. Today, many white Mississippians see the Confederate Battle Flag as a symbol of resistance to authoritarianism. For black Mississippians, the inclusion of the Confederate Battle Flag on the state flag is a bitter reminder of the Jim Crow era of the late 1800s and early 1900s when black people lost most of the social and economic progress they made during the Reconstruction period.

  After Sunday’s House vote and overwhelming margin of approval, Speaker Philip Gunn said he doesn’t think changing Mississippi’s flag is part of the same initiative he sees to erase historical figures across the nation that have controversial pasts.

  He told reporters that the Mississippi flag and that Confederate battle emblem was not representative of all Mississippians and that’s why he has been vocal about getting the current flag retired for the last five years.

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