October 30, 2020

Stennis deserves credit for nudging Mississippi away from controversial flag

Efforts to change the Mississippi state flag have received attention from The Washington Post, which did a profile of Laurin Stennis, who came up with a proposed redesign.

Stennis gets more attention than other flag-change proponents because she is the granddaughter of legendary Mississippi Sen. John Stennis, who had a regrettable history, as did almost all white Southern politicians of his era, on the issue of racial segregation.

As the Post reported, Stennis was a co-author in the 1950s of “The Southern Manifesto,” which opposed the Supreme Court ruling that forbade racially segregated schools. And in 1983, he voted against a national holiday for Martin Luther King’s birthday.

Stennis deserves criticism for decisions like those. But he also should be praised for the many things he got right. His racial views moderated over time, and he supported renewal, for instance, of the Voting Rights Act in 1983.

Separately, he helped people in this state of all races by the influence he had on federal spending as chairman of powerful Senate committees. He played an especially key role in allocating defense spending, which produced many contracts for shipbuilders and other defense contractors in this state. NASA’s giant space center on the Mississippi Gulf Coast bears his name in recognition of his legacy.

As the senator was 71 when his granddaughter was born, it is no surprise that the pair’s experiences in Mississippi are vastly different. Laurin Stennis, an artist by trade, has come up with an appealing alternative to the current controversial Mississippi flag and its Confederate emblem.

The Stennis Flag, as it is called, features a large, attention-grabbing blue star in the center. It is surrounded by 19 smaller stars in a circle, signifying Mississippi as America’s 20th state.

The stars are on a white background. The flag also has a vertical red band on either side.

Stennis said she put the blue star on a white background as an inversion of the Bonnie Blue flag, which Mississippi flew when the state seceded from the Union in 1861. She switched the two colors to acknowledge the state’s history without celebrating it.

A flag design consultant who prefers simple banners gave Stennis high marks for her design. She went public with it in 2015 after the killing of nine black people at a church in South Carolina started an effort to remove the Confederate battle flag from that state’s Capitol.

Lately Stennis has been passing out lapel pins of her flag to Mississippi legislators and lobbyists. But everyone knows it will take a lot more than that before anything changes.

Two-thirds of voters in a 2001 referendum supported the existing flag instead of an alternative that included 20 stars, just like the Stennis Flag does. It is hard to gauge how much public sentiment about the current flag has changed in the intervening 18 years, but probably not enough to adopt a new banner if it were put to a popular vote.

It will take leadership from the Legislature to make a change, if one is to be made. Some have made noble overtures in that direction, most notably House Speaker Philip Gunn. But with this being an election year, the effort is unlikely to get much further than the batch of bills filed most every year now to make a change.

The current flag is divisive, and it creates a disadvantage for Mississippi in the competition for commerce. Eventually it will be replaced, even if not this year.

Stennis deserves credit for respectfully nudging the state forward on this issue instead of encouraging its perpetual habit, no matter the cost, of looking backward.

Originally published in The Greenwood Commonwealth