JACKSON • Six months after Mississippi’s 126-year-old Confederate-themed banner was pulled down and placed into storage, a new flag featuring a white magnolia blossom and 20 stars rose above the Capitol building on Monday afternoon.
“Today, we turn the page,” Gov. Tate Reeves said before signing a bill that ratified the new flag design. “We commit our former flag to history, and we commit ourselves to the business of the future. It is one small effort to unify, but it is done in good faith.”
Monday’s flag-raising ceremony capped a stunning series of events that began late last spring as protests over racial injustice swept the country. Under mounting pressure from businesses, athletic and religious groups, state lawmakers voted in June to remove the old banner and its divisive symbol and set the process for finding a new one.
In late summer, a state flag committee pondered the best design as they pored through thousands of ideas from Mississippi residents. And in November, an overwhelming majority of voters showed they supported the committee’s final choice.
But the process wasn’t quite finished until Monday, when Reeves signed House Bill 1 ratifying the new flag during a ceremony at the Two Mississippi Museums. He was flanked by the nine members of the state’s flag commission, which selected the new design and whose members included Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians’ Chief Cyrus Ben and Reuben Anderson, the first Black justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court.
The Republican governor’s signature had followed a pair of votes in the Legislature last week to formalize the new design. Only eight lawmakers, all Republicans, opposed it, including Northeast Mississippi’s Kathy Chism of New Albany and Neil Whaley of Potts Camp.
Reeves noted the former flag had long been a roadblock to unity in Mississippi. While some felt the Confederate battle emblem symbolized “the state and heritage they love,” many others viewed it and “felt dismissed, diminished and even hated.”
Reeves himself had long refused to take a position on the flag, saying only voters should decide to take the old flag down. But he eventually softened his stance, opening the door for lawmakers to pass the flag-change legislation in June.
“We cannot see one another as the enemy,” Reeves said Monday. “We all need a dose of humility and a dose of empathy.”
Shortly after the signing, officials met several blocks away at the Capitol to watch a new era begin. Before July, Mississippi had been the only state whose flag still featured the Confederate battle emblem.
Approved by racist lawmakers in 1894, the flag had long been divisive and seen by many as a symbol of white supremacy – an especially jarring image in a state with the highest percentage of Black residents in the country. Indeed, the push to change the flag last year, following many failed attempts before, came amid a new national reckoning on race following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“It feels like I’m in a different state,” Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, told the Daily Journal after the new flag went up. “Even though not much else has changed in Mississippi, the fact that we have seen it in our hearts to change the image that symbolizes our state, I think speaks volumes. I’m elated to have been a part of it. It’s been a long, hard-fought battle.”
Horhn, who is Black, has introduced numerous flag-change bills since he took office more than 25 years ago – so many he’s lost count. He said he only believed the current effort would succeed when he saw then-Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill announce in late June that he wouldn’t play unless the flag changed.
“The singularity of his stance took a lot of courage,” Horhn said of Hill. “When I saw that, I began to believe that (a new flag) was in the realm of possibility.”
Designed by Rocky Vaughan, the new banner features the magnolia blossom, signifying state hospitality, hope and rebirth. Twenty stars represent when Mississippi joined the Union. A gold five-point star represents the state’s indigenous tribes. And two gold bars reflect the state’s rich cultural history. The flag includes the words “In God We Trust,” language that was mandated in the legislation passed last year.
House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, recalled the hard road to passing that legislation in a speech Monday. He said 10 days before the bill passed, he would not have thought it was possible – there were not enough votes. But slowly many skeptical representatives began to come around, Gunn said, largely because they wanted to set a good example for their children and grandchildren.
“It was their families,” Gunn explained. “It was knowing that history was going to record what they did, and they did not want their spouses, or their children or grandchildren to be disappointed in them. They wanted their children and grandchildren to be proud of them – the future generations of this state to be proud of what they did.”
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann praised the more than 900,000 Mississippians who voted to approve the new magnolia design in November.
“It will provide a shade of history and community for our citizens,” he said. “It will provide nourishment to the roots of our society. It will inspire our children, and hopefully generations to come, and it will give us a sense of place. We will learn together under this flag, we will work together under this flag, and we will worship together under this flag.”
Felder Rushing, the horticulturist, radio host and writer who lives in Jackson, came to see the Reeves bill signing himself after pushing for years for Mississippi to change its banner to something featuring a magnolia.
He said the “sturdy, stately” magnolia flower is well-known around the world, so Mississippi’s new flag should soon be as recognizable as Texas’ lone star design, or South Carolina’s palmetto.
“Nothing but feel-good,” was Rushing’s reaction to the new flag’s final approval. “It’s unifying.”