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Local Activist Pioneers Fight to Rebrand Mississippi’s State Flag

By Talbert Toole
Lifestyles Editor

A house in Jackson flies the Stennis Flag on the front porch. Photo courtesy of Laurin Stennis.

As a woman who was birthed into a family of politicians, Laurin Stennis is not new to the political atmosphere inside the Capitol building in downtown Jackson, Mississippi.

Some of Stennis’ earliest memories of her childhood were the trips she would take to visit her father, John H. Stennis, who was a part of the State House from 1969 to 1984. Stennis said the Mississippi State Capitol always fascinated her and left her feeling starstruck.

“I think our Capitol is the most beautiful one in the nation,” Stennis said. “I have not visited all of [the Capitol buildings] in person, but I think ours is something special.”

Her grandfather, John C. Stennis, also played a key role in shaping politics for Mississippi and the country, serving in office from 1947 to 1989. Stennis described him as a workhorse.

“I grew up around that atmosphere,” Stennis said. “It was very much infused in me, for better or for worse, knowing that [politics] wasn’t always rose gardens.”

After living out of the Magnolia State for 16 years, Stennis finally decided to move back to her hometown of Jackson; however, the artist found herself frustrated with the inability to proudly hang the Mississippi state flag outside her new home due to its connotation of a negative historic past.

“I thought ‘this is absurd that not every citizen of Mississippi can reach for the state flag without a moment of hesitation,'” she said.

The sadness and frustration Stennis felt led her to dive into state archives and research the flag and its past. Originally, Stennis was going to support “The Magnolia Flag” that picked up momentum prior to 2016, but after she conducted extensive research there appeared to be a huge misconception surrounding the history of the flag. Many believe it was the first state flag of Mississippi, but according to the archives, Stennis said that proved to be false.

Top: Mississippi’s current and official state flag. Botton: The Magnolia Flag that was adopted by the Republic of Mississippi in 1861. Photo via Business Insider.

Her research proved that the Magnolia Flag was never adopted as a state flag for Mississippi. After Mississippi seceded, the residents wanted a new flag for the Republic of Mississippi, Stennis said. In January 1861, the Republic commissioned a new flag which would be adopted in March of that year—The Magnolia Flag.

“It was our official flag of secession,” Stennis said. “So [it’s] more closely tied to the Confederacy than what [Mississippi] has now.”

Stennis initially thought she would just share her designs with a few friends, but then the Charleston Church Massacre of 2015 resonated fear and sadness in her.

After the massacre, elected officials—regardless of political party—began to say that the Mississippi flag needed to change, Stennis said.

“I thought, ‘This might be the moment if we are ready,'” she said.

With a design laid out, she began to publicly share The Stennis Flag throughout the state.

The flag encompasses 19 stars in a circle and one in the middle representing Mississippi being the 20th state to join The Union in 1817. The flag also takes on the exact colors of the United States flag.

The Legislation Behind the Stennis Flag

The unofficial adoption of The Stennis Flag picked up steam and became a grassroots movement. In 2016, Rep. Kathy Sykes, a Democratic member of the Mississippi House of Representatives, filed a bill introducing the flag to Mississippi legislation. Although the bill died in what is known as the Rules Committee—a standing committee of the Mississippi House of Representatives—the flag bill has been introduced back to the Capitol numerous times between 2016-2018.

The bill has been filed another three times for 2019. There are currently two in the House: one by Rep. Kathy Sykes and one by Rep. David Baria; and one in Senate that is sponsored by Sen. Willie Simmons and cosponsored by David Blount.

With it being an election year, Stennis is not anticipating any elected official to fully support the flag bills, but she said the bills have incredible bipartisan support.

Although there has not been a successful flag bill to pass the Rules Committee and make its way to the floors of the House and Senate, Stennis said the movement can be seen across the state with Mississippi residents purchasing stickers and flags that hang from Oxford all the way to Jackson.

The flag has no affiliation with any particular politician or party, Stennis said. It is simply a grassroots movement.

“I think it is more organic when it moves from Mississippian to Mississipian,” she said.

The Role of a State Flag

Some state groups are steadfast in believing the current flag should remain.

A group known as Our State Flag Foundation actively advocates for the current state flag. The foundation says it is “dedicated to the preservation of the state flag of Mississippi being flown at Ole Miss and all other public universities across Mississippi” and actively advocates their cause in The Grove during home football games.

Though no one from the foundation responded after repeated inquiries, J Curry Kean wrote on the foundation’s Facebook page that many people are rushing to worship at the altar of political correctness by advocating a change in the Mississippi flag.

“They say it causes angst in some and therefore should be changed,” Kean wrote.

Kean said that changing the state flag will not alter a single event of the past and will not improve the lives of even one Mississippian.

Stennis said the role of a state flag is to be a logo. It is a tool that is used for marketing and branding for any individual state, she said, which is a role fulfilled by the government.

“The logo we have now is failing us miserably,” Stennis said. “It is hurting us. It is a spiritual and economic burden.”

Many businesses across the state, such as Oxford’s Neilson’s Department Store, have begun to fly this flag in place of the current official flag. Universities such as Ole Miss and Southern Miss have also refused to fly the official flag. 

Neilson’s Department Store on The Square flies the Stennis Flag alongside the U.S. Flag. Photo by Talbert Toole.

Although some believe the flag will not heal the state’s controversial past, Stennis still believes it is a problem that needs to be solved.

“We need to remedy this problem,” Stennis said.

Stennis said the movement is not aimed to silence those who prefer to fly or represent the current state flag.

“That is a matter of free speech,” she said.

Those currently working on Stennis Flag legislation have written protections into the bills for those who still wish to fly the Confederate and current state flag.

“We are heading in the right direction,” Stennis said.

For more information on The Stennis Flag, visit the movement’s website.

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