Mississippians Unite Under "Magnolia Flag"

The original article appears here. For updated information and commentary, see the update below.

The Mississippi state flag has become a nightmare for legislators, and a controversy that will not subside without a fresh approach. While some Mississippians propose to create a new state flag without the Confederate battle flag in its canton (corner), many others do not want a new flag, preferring the tradition and heritage of the current one. The solution is simple: restore the "real" Mississippi state flag that was used until 1894. The beloved "Magnolia Flag" reflects a rich tradition and heritage, and uses emblems that are older and more authentic than those of the current flag. It is better suited to unite Mississippians than the current flag.

The Magnolia flag consists of a white star on a square canton of dark blue; centered in the fly area is a magnolia tree (Magnolia grandiflora) in dark green, with white flowers, upon a white field. Some versions add a red fringe, or a red bar on the fly. It flies daily among the historical flags at the Sillers State Office Building.

The flag combines two elements: a white star on a blue field, and a magnolia tree on a white field. The white star on a blue field dates back to the West Florida revolt of 1810, which included the southern part of Mississippi. This banner, called the "Bonnie Blue Flag," became an emblem of southern secession movements, and was incorporated into the "Lone Star" flag of the Texas Republic. The "Bonnie Blue Flag" was raised in Jackson upon Mississippi's secession from the Union on January 9, 1861. It was recognized as the unofficial and sentimental flag of the entire Confederacy, and was the subject of one of the most popular southern songs during the Civil War.

The magnolia tree has long been regarded as the distinctive symbol of Mississippi, like the palmetto of South Carolina. On January 26, 1861, A magnolia device on a white field was added to the "Bonnie Blue Flag" to create a new flag for the independent state of Mississippi. When Mississippi joined the Confederacy on March 27, 1861, the newly-created "Magnolia Flag" became the state flag. Magnolia flags were also flown by various military units, such as the Corinth Rifles.

At the end of the Civil War, Mississippi entered the Reconstruction era, a time marked by federal military occupation, the beginnings of public education, and the wide participation of African Americans in public life, including U.S. Senators Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce, and congressman John R. Lynch. The Magnolia Flag remained the flag of Mississippi during this period, though there is evidence that its use may have been unofficial after 1865.

In 1875 conservative Democrats, led by James Z. George and L.Q.C. Lamar, regained control of the state, initiating an era they called "Redemption." During this period, which lasted until 1890, the Magnolia Flag was still the flag of Mississippi, and it remained so until 1894. The current flag was designed in that year, as part of an ongoing program to exclude African Americans from the franchise and all other aspects of public life. By this time, the battle flag of the Confederacy had been co-opted by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, and had replaced the Bonnie Blue Flag as the popular symbol of the Lost Cause. Even so, the new flag legislation was couched in heraldic terms that cleverly avoided mentioning the Confederate banner. The new flag was adopted by the legislature with no statewide referendum: what the 1894 legislature did, the 2001 legislature can undo.

Nearly all the flags of the southern states incorporate some of the colors and devices of the confederacy. Only Texas still proudly flies its pre-Civil War banner. But only Mississippi and Georgia actually reproduce on their flags the Confederate battle flag, which has become a divisive symbol in the twentieth century. To some southerners it recalls bravery and sacrifice, to others lynchings and brutality.

To those for whom the current flag represents heritage, tradition, and heroism—the Magnolia flag will serve you better. It offers an authentic symbol of southern values dating back to 1810, plus a real representation of the Mississippi landscape (the magnolia tree). This flag was actually used during the Civil War, and predates both the current state flag and the "Rebel flag" itself! This is true heritage and tradition, not Dixiecrat hype!

To those for whom the current flag represents racism, discrimination, and brutality—the Magnolia flag will serve you better. While it was used during the Civil War, it was also used during Reconstruction, an era when black Mississippians made unprecedented strides in education and politics. Most importantly, the Magnolia flag does not bear the stigma of abuse by the Klan and other hate groups.

Do I want to change the state flag? Hell, no! I want to restore the "real" state flag, the Magnolia Flag, to its rightful position of honor, where it can unite us rather than divide us. This is what symbols are for. Stand up for tradition at its best!

D.W. Steel, Oxford

Update: On May 4, 2000, The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that the 1894 law establishing the current state flag expired in 1906. On June 30, Governor Ronnie Musgrove appointed an Advisory Commission on the State Flag and Coat of Arms, which was to study the issue and report to the legislature on May 4, 2001. The commission, headed by former Governor William Winter, included Larry Frye, Moss Point; Fran Ivy, Columbus; Don Kilgore, Philadelphia; Vanessa Rogers Long, Clarksdale; J.L. Holloway, Jackson; Rev. Dolphus Weary, Jackson; Jack Reed, Tupelo; Lisa Binder, Jackson; Jean Moore, Coldwater; and Johnny Tatum, Hattiesburg (all appointed by Governor Musgrove); Sen. Terry Burton, D-Newton; Sen. Hillman Frazier, D-Jackson; and Sen. Mike Chaney, R-Vicksburg (appointed by Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck); Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton; Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville; and Rep. Wanda Jennings, R-Southaven (appointed by House Speaker Tim Ford).

In January, 2001, the commission headed by former governor William Winter reported to the legislature ahead of schedule. They proposed a new design consisting of stripes of blue and white, with twenty stars in a red canton. Legislators objected to this design, whose stars on a red field reminded legislators of the flags of communist states such as North Korea! The committee then modified its proposal, returning to the red, white, and blue stripes of the 1894 flag, but replacing the Confederate battle emblem with twenty white stars on a blue canton. The legislature, evading their responsibility for action, voted to hold a statewide plebiscite on April 17, 2001, when voters were asked to choose between the Commission's modified design and the 1894 flag.

Although the historic Magnolia flag was proposed to the commission, and was discussed in its private and public sessions, the commission opted for a non-historic design which resembles the 1894 flag but without the Confederate battle emblem. It was neither beautiful nor historic, and voters rejected it two to one in favor of the 1894 flag. Since they rejected the proposed flag as new-fangled and unaesthetic, then the Magnolia flag, with its rich history, may yet have its day.