How not to design Mississippi’s new state flag

A vexillologist is an expert on flags—their design, history, symbolism, and uses. Ted Kaye, the secretary of the North American Vexillological Association and the editor of the group’s annual journal, has compiled a
“Good Flag, Bad Flag” guide offering five basic principles for designing a great flag. They are:

  • Keep it simple.
  • Use meaningful symbolism.
  • Use two or three basic colors.
  • No lettering or seals.
  • Be distinctive, or be related.

Kaye’s list might also have included sixth injunction: don’t use emblems of racism and hate.

The state of Mississippi has been in violation of that sixth rule since 1894, when conservative legislators, in an overt appeal to white supremacists and veterans of the Confederacy, adopted a state flag design dominated by the Confederate battle emblem. (See this account published by the Mississippi Historical Society.)

On Sunday, 136 years later, Mississippi lawmakers voted to retire the flag with Confederate symbol effective July 15.

The bill, which the state’s Republican Governor Tate Reeve has said he will sign, is a landmark for Mississippi and the rest of the nation. Mississippi has the largest Black population of any American state. And yet, it has preserved the Confederate symbol in its flag, long after other southern states removed the battle emblem from their standards.

For decades, critics inside and outside the state for decades have decried the design as a sign of Mississippi’s failure to come to terms with its history of slavery, segregation, and racial violence. The flag has undermined the state’s ability to attract investment, lure students and tourists, and participate in national sporting competitions.

Even so, many white Mississippians defended the Confederate emblem as a proud reminder of the state’s southern heritage. A 2001 referendum to abolish the flag was soundly defeated.

Fewer Mississippians are willing to rally round the flag in the wake of the gruesome killing of George Floyd while in the custody of white police officers in Minneapolis. As other states pull down Confederate monuments and strip the names of segregationists from buildings and institutions, Mississippi’s lawmakers, too, have voted for change.

For now, Mississippi has no flag. Sunday’s vote leaves unresolved the question of what the new design should look like.

For years, the frontrunner has been a design known as “the Stennis Flag” after its creator, Mississippi artist Laurin Stennis. Stennis is a woodblock printmaker by training, but in devising an alternative she consulted with Ted Kayne and other vexillologists. Her design features a large blue star surrounded by 19 small stars against a white background, with vertical red bars on either side. Its symbols draw from Mississippi history (which you can read about here). The Stennis flag has been endorsed by Kaye, and in persuasive New York Times essay, by Mississippi’s Black poet laureate Beth Ann Fennelly.

And yet, as Fennelly concedes, succeeding on design principles doesn’t guarantee the Stennis flag can unite the state. Stennis is the white granddaughter of the late Democratic U.S. Senator John C. Stennis, a staunch defender of segregation who voted against the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Stennis hasn’t tried to hide her family background, and last week took to social media to announce she is “stepping away” from the campaign for the design and understands the “hurt and potential harm my last name can cause.”

Reeves originally said that the decision on a new flag should be made directly by voters. But the resolution approved Sunday calls for creation of a nine-person commission to design the new one, and requires them to include the phrase “In God we trust.” The commission would be charged with arriving at a design by September for it to be put up for a vote on the November ballot.

That approach would contradict Kaye’s “no lettering or seals” rule above. The Good Flag, Bad Flag guide warns explicitly: “Don’t allow a committee to design a flag. Instead, empower individuals to design flags, and use a committee to select among them.”

In following the debate about how to generate a new flag design for the state, I found myself asking the question that’s been posed by a recently formed coalition of designers of color: “Where are all the black designers?” This would seem like the perfect opportunity to enlist them.

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Clay Chandler
[email protected]

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