Mississippi flag debate unfurls pros and cons

By Alastair Baker
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(Right) The prototype Stennis flag.

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Photos by Alastair Baker

Laurin Stennis explains, via Skype, the concept of the proposed Stennis flag, designed to replace the present Mississippi flag. Nate Anderson, Chairman of the Red Lodge Broadway Flag Committee, stands to her left.

The decision to fly the Mississippi flag with the other 49 state flags along Red Lodge Broadway opened up more questions than answers at a debate hosted by the Red Lodge Broadway Flag Committee (RLBFC) along with the Red Lodge Area Community Foundation and Humanities of Montana.

Every year, the RLBFC decorate the town in a festive array of colorful flags, beginning the summer season with the U.S. flag, then adding the 12 original Festival of Nations flags before transmuting into all 50 U.S. state flags, “designed to honor our current tourism industry and the second wave of immigrants,” said RLBFC Chairman Nate Anderson.

However this year, the contentious debate of the Mississippi flag with its Confederate flag in the top left hand corner has thrown a wrench into the Committee’s plans.

The Mississippi flag was created in 1894 and for many is seen as an affront to liberty, freedom, along with being a symbol of slavery and white supremacy. Since August last year, when white nationalists clashed with counter protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, leaving one dead and 34 injured, protests and riots over the continued use of the Confederate symbol have grown across the South.

Anderson admitted to those attending that the decision has been a “struggle” for the committee but he felt they had to be “pretty steadfast if we want to do all 50 states” and “stick to our policy of flying all 50 state flags.”

One issue they do not want is to get in a position of flying one state over another. “That’s our position,” he said. “If the community says it is not appropriate, we’d go back to the historic norm and go back to American flags on the poles. We think that’s a step back but if the community wants that, we’ll probably go in that direction.”

Prior to getting the debate going there was a brief overview by Laurin Stennis via Skype. Stennis is the granddaughter of Mississippi Sen. John Stennis and is presently working with the legislature on an alternative version for the state called the ‘Stennis’ flag.

Stennis reiterated the difficult decision the RLBFC was going through saying people would “complain” whatever they decided to do but did “appreciate” Red Lodge’s attempt at “grappling with this.”

“I hope no blood will be shed in Montana with what we are dealing with here,” she said.

She explained that the reintroduction of the Confederate symbol in 1894 was a “giant reassertion of white supremacy” and carried out in “response to Federal decisions that they didn’t agree with. Georgia did the same thing.”

“The history of these designs are not super friendly so for us as the hospitality state we have a flag that signals this and doesn’t represent all of us,” said Stennis.

A lot of people she said “cringe or get defensive” around the flag but “you can’t explain it away.”

The new design will include a shift in colors and a new logo based on naval variants and is “respectful.”

Stennis suggested reintroducing the Magnolia flag, Mississippi’s state flag from 1861 to 1894, or flying the prototype flag back to back with the present flag.

Although the new flag will not be voted on until 2020 the Stennis Flag Flyers, a nonpartisan group of citizens and business leaders, are “planning to get the prototype flag up everywhere they can,” she said.

Anderson talked of the RLBFC perhaps writing a letter to the Mississippi legislature to show how this has impacted them.

When it came to discussing the situation among the 70 attendees, who where split into 7 groups of 10, the consensus was mixed. Although most acknowledged the “Nazi” related symbolism that the Confederate flag stands for, some wondered what this had to do with Red Lodge or even Montana.

“Are we so wonderful we can discuss this?” said one person. “Supposing another state decided we don’t like the Montana flag. Would they feel picked on? Sure they would.”

“Our own state flag might be offensive,” said one group, while another made the point that “Refusing to fly makes us look intolerant ourselves” and another added “how can we be inclusive if you exclude someone.”

“Every family has a challenging member but we don’t kick them out,” said another group.

Other comments ranged from it being an “historical representation of a flag of their state and should be taken up with that state” to “each state flies its flags and we should honor that decision.”

One group felt it would be a “shame not to fly anything. How will we look to others if we don’t have their flag?”

This last statement did bring up concern about tourism, negative impacts, and loss of revenue as it was remarked that most visitors like to look for their state flag.

“When we go to the Washington D.C. war memorial the first thing you do is look for your state flag, like tourists coming here,” said one voice.

Another person questioned whether it would help matters.

“If we take it down, is this fixing the issues Mississippi is facing?” they said.

When dealing with the symbolism, one group stated, it “represents support for the South’s preferred outcome of the war. They lost the war and still live through that. The federal battle flag presents a war fought over slavery and to have it still flown keeps that symbol presenting slavery. The symbol means different thing for different people. If your ancestor is a Civil War veteran that’s untenable to you, if you’re a black kid that means something to you. Untenable to how you were raised. The flag presented the values of the state. What are the values of Mississippi now? It’s not slavery. Confederacy has the same reaction as the Nazi flag. What if Germany had that in the corner of their flag?”

Another group simply stated that, “Racist flags should not be flown in this city.”

“Confederate presents White Supremacy. The Nazi flag is not flown in Europe,” they added.

Another group said, “The (Red Lodge) community was built on diversity. The festival was made to bring people together. There was always tension between cultures.”

“Every society or country has some issues in their past concerning their national symbols in their flag, every country has a skelton in their cupboard,” one group reflected.

Warene Wall, who grew up in the Mississippi Delta and had many black friends, said she was “offended by the actions” to ban the state flag.

In following up, Cynthia Marble, said the “artistic rendition is great because you have the red, white and blue, the major picture in that flag, and up in the corner is the confederacy and that’s exactly what happened. The confederacy was absorbed into the red, white and blue. It’s a beautiful part of our history, that we are the heart felt nation of Christian and non-Christian, of beautiful believers that made this happen and slavery was defeated.”

“All 50 are beautiful but not necessarily united,” remarked another group. “Exclusivity is to all (but) is not demonstrated by a racist or derisive symbol and the American flag promotes unity.”

"Towards the end of the meeting, Anderson was told of “two businesses that will leave if those flags fly.”

Anderson and his committee now have the task of sifting through the comments and trying to come up with a solution that will placate citizens and tourists alike.