After 126 years of flying a Confederate-themed banner, Mississippi is set to adopt a new state symbol. On Tuesday, 68 percent of voters in a statewide referendum approved the “New Magnolia,” which features a magnolia blossom encircled by stars, as the Mississippi flag’s official design, reports Dan Avery for NBC News.
The newly approved pattern will replace a banner first adopted in 1894. State legislators officially retired the design, which featured a Confederate emblem in its upper left corner, on July 1, becoming the last state in the country to remove Confederate symbolism from its flag.
Designed by graphic artist Rocky Vaughan, the “New Magnolia” shows the state flower standing at the center of a dark blue stripe flanked by gold and red. Twenty stars meant to symbolize Mississippi’s status as the 20th state to enter the Union, as well as the words “In God We Trust,” surround the white blossom. At the top of the circle rests a golden five-pointed star representing the Native American tribes who lived on the land that became Mississippi prior to European colonization, according to a Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) statement.
Per Emily Wagster Pettus of the Associated Press, white supremacists in the Mississippi state legislature adopted the Confederate-themed emblem as part of the backlash against power gained by African American individuals during the Reconstruction period.
“The flag represented a reassertion of power by conservative Democrats, which also meant unifying the state’s whites, who were divided politically, economically and socially,” wrote W. Ralph Eubanks for the New Yorker in July.
When many black people started winning elected office during Reconstruction, conservative white Democrats—aided by paramilitary white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan—mobilized to enact the so-called “Mississippi Plan,” which disenfranchised would-be African American voters. Over the following decades, Jim Crow laws codified racial segregation and inequality across the state.
The Confederate flag—a red field featuring a blue X studded with white stars—has long been considered a symbol of racism. As early as the 1890s, white supremacists and other proponents of the “Lost Cause” ideology—the revisionist, ahistorical idea that the Civil War hinged not on the issue of slavery, but states’ rights and the preservation of the South’s way of life—embraced the emblem; today, the flag and other symbols of the Confederacy continue to ignite heated debate.
“The story of the Mississippi state flag provides a window into how false narratives about history—particularly in the American South—are sustained,” Eubanks explained for the New Yorker. “It also presents an opportunity for the state to build and promulgate a new cultural narrative, one rooted in truth rather than deception about the past.”
According to the Mississippi Historical Society, public demonstrations against the flag date back to the 1970s and ’80s. In 1983, John Hawkins, the University of Mississippi’s first black cheerleader, sparked a movement by announcing that he would not carry the so-called “Rebel flag” at Ole Miss football games.
Eighteen years after Hawkins’ declaration, in 2001, voters “overwhelmingly” opted to keep the flag in a statewide referendum, per Veronica Stracqualursi of CNN. But many cities and universities decided to stop flying the banner because of its Confederate ties.
In 2015, Mississippi engaged in renewed debate about the flag and its future after a white man shot and killed nine black people at a Charleston, South Carolina, church. Prior to the racist hate crime, the shooter had posed for photos with Confederate flags and memorabilia.
This summer, amid global protests sparked by the killing of Minnesota man George Floyd, public pressure led state legislators to reconsider Mississippi’s flag once again. After thousands of Black Lives Matter protesters gathered at the state capitol in early June, prominent business, religious and sports organizations—among them the Southern Baptist Convention and the NCAA—pushed for change. State legislators voted to remove the Confederate-inspired flag later that summer.
Governor Tate Reeves signed the bill discontinuing the 1894 flag at a ceremony in late June. The legislation stipulated that the new flag design must not contain any reference to the Confederacy but include the words “In God We Trust.” At the ceremony, Reeves said, “This is not a political moment to me, but a solemn occasion to lead our Mississippi family to come together, to be reconciled and to move on.”
Vaughan designed the chosen flag with support from Sue Anna Joe, Kara Giles, Dominique Pugh, Clay Moss and Micah Whitson, according to the MDAH statement. A nine-person commission sorted through more than 3,000 submissions to pick finalists for the new flag design, reports NBC News.
Reuben Anderson, the first African American person to serve on the Mississippi Supreme Court, chaired the commission to select the new flag.
“I grew up in Mississippi in the ’40s and ’50s, and all of my life Mississippi has been at the bottom, 50th, in whatever category you can think of. Whether income, health care or education, we’ve always been on the bottom,” he noted in a speech after commission members selected the “New Magnolia” design in an 8-1 vote, as Giacomo Bologna reported for the Clarion Ledger in September.
Anderson added, “On [November] 3, I think that’ll start to change.”