The law setting forth the process to pick a new Mississippi flag had two main stipulations: The words “In God we trust” had to be on it, and the Confederate battle emblem, which had been featured prominently on the old one, could not.
Beyond that, the flag could go in virtually any direction as long as it captured the spirit of Mississippi.
On Wednesday, a committee tasked with choosing from among the finalists decided, 8-1, on a design with 20 white stars ringing a white magnolia flower against a dark blue and red backdrop. Now it is up to voters, who will have a chance to approve it in November.
The magnolia already has roots firmly planted in the history and culture of Mississippi, as well as across the South, as a bold and fragrant avatar of a genteel vision of the past. Yet some on the panel also cast it as a forward-looking symbol of Mississippi’s promise.
“All of my life Mississippi has been at the bottom, 50th, in whatever category you can think of,” said Reuben V. Anderson, the chairman of the commission, who had been the first African-American to serve on the Mississippi Supreme Court. “Whether income, health care or education, we’ve always been on the bottom. On Nov. 3, I think that’ll start to change.”
The state flag that was retired in June after flying for 126 years had been the last in the nation to include the Confederate battle emblem. Lawmakers voted to bring it down as relics of the Confederacy were toppled and excised across the South, caught up in the nationwide conversation about race after the Minneapolis police killed George Floyd in May.
A flag to ‘redefine ourselves in the right way’
The center of the proposed flag is a magnolia flower, with the stars representing Mississippi’s place as the 20th state to join the union. An additional star at the top of the circle represents the roots of the Choctaw Native Americans in the state.
The commission said the flag, which is a combination of various magnolia designs that had been submitted, would be known as the “In God We Trust” flag.
“The whole goal of this was to help the people find a flag they can be proud of and a flag that they can look at and say, ‘Yes, that represents me,’” said Sue Anna Joe, one of the flag’s designers, who lives in San Francisco but is a native of Greenwood in the Mississippi Delta. “This is a golden opportunity for us to redefine ourselves in the right way.”
Part of the argument for changing the flag was removing a barrier to growth and investment, with business leaders saying that a prominent display of Confederate iconography had turned off corporations considering expanding in Mississippi.
But it also reflected something deeper: There was a growing sense among Mississippians that the flag was just as much a barrier thwarting racial harmony that had long eluded the state.
Still, the old banner has its supporters: Polls showed that nearly half the state wanted to keep it. And the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans has vowed to campaign against any proposed new flag, figuring that if they cannot restore the old banner, they can at least disrupt the process to replace it.
Proponents of the magnolia flag are optimistic that it will have broad appeal, tapping into broader sense of pride in Mississippi that extends beyond race or other divisions.
“I actually think it’s pretty nice looking,” said Timothy Young, one of the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement in Mississippi and an activist who pushed for removing the old flag.
He compared the old flag’s role in molding perceptions of the state, which had made outsiders leery, to wearing an off-putting tie in a job interview. “It’s a brand-new tie,” Mr. Young said, “a way to introduce ourselves in a brand-new light.”
Ms. Joe, the designer, noted that the southern magnolia was already the state flower and tree of Mississippi, nicknamed the Magnolia State. The flower is also featured on the sign welcoming motorists driving in on the interstate.
“When I see a magnolia, I think Mississippi,” she said, “and I think home.”
3,000 ideas for capturing the spirit of Mississippi
The magnolia flag was chosen over one depicting the “Great Territorial Shield” of 1798, which was cast in Philadelphia, Pa., when Congress established the territory of Mississippi.
In his interpretation of the seal, the designer, Micah Whitson, said the lines at the top represented the waters of the Mississippi River that has long powered the economy and vibrant culture of the state. “It is kind of the meridian of America,” Mr. Whitson said in an interview.
Like its inspiration, the design has a shield with vertical lines formed in groups of three, representing the European empires that had laid claim to Mississippi: the Spanish, the French and the British.
A star rests above the shield, meant as an recognition of the Choctaw Native Americans, who were in Mississippi when the newcomers arrived. The five points on the star represent regions of the state.
Mr. Whitson grew up in Alabama and attended the University of Mississippi. He saw the design as an opportunity, he said, to “celebrate what is beautiful” about the South.
“Any symbol that flies as a flag is only as strong as what it comes to represent,” he said. “We will be the ones who help give it context and help define it for future generations.”
The commission reviewed about 3,000 submissions and whittled the list to 147. The pool of contenders was then cut down to nine, then five, before landing on the two final designs.
Of the final five flags, three featured a magnolia flower, and one depicted a magnolia tree. All displayed the five-point golden star. “Mississippi has a tremendous amount of interest in what we are doing,” Mr. Anderson, the chairman of the committee, said in one of its meetings. “We’re sure not going to disappoint them, and we’re going to give them the greatest flag that we can have.”
Critics contended that changing the flag was an assault on a history still celebrated by many. They also argued that the decision to take down the flag should have been made by voters in a referendum, and not by lawmakers.
Voters overwhelmingly decided to keep the flag in a 2001 referendum. An unsuccessful effort to remove it was mounted again five years ago, after an avowed white supremacist killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., which brought about a similar reckoning to minimize statues and flags honoring the Confederacy.
Yet when the proponents of removing the flag mobilized this time, they gained a level of traction they never had before. A broad cross-section extending over racial, partisan and religious lines voiced opposition to the old flag, including the Black and white Baptist conventions, college football coaches, business associations and country music stars.
The (accidental) honorable mention
If the intent was to capture the essence of Mississippi, a mosquito makes about as much sense as a magnolia flower.
But officials from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History said it was a mistake when one proposal with the stars surrounding a large mosquito moved forward in the selection process. (The agency attributed it to a typo.)
Error or not, that did not stop the flag from resonating. Few things unite Mississippians like the shared exasperation from having to swat mosquitoes and scratch at their itchy bites.
A reporter for The Clarion-Ledger tracked down the flag’s creator, Thomas Rosete, a 26-year-old working as a deckhand on the Yazoo River. Mr. Rosete made clear that his design was not meant as a celebration of the ubiquitous insect. It was a begrudging acknowledgment of the pest’s grip on Mississippi.
“The mosquitoes, it’s their state,” he said. “We’re just living in it.”