State Politics

Why a famous senator’s granddaughter abandoned the magnolia flag and made her own

Laurin Stennis reaches up to the top shelf next to her desk for a decades-old memento from her late grandfather’s career.

“Look ahead,” says the inscription on the sign he kept on his desk. It’s her answer to people who say Sen. John Stennis would be rolling in his grave if he knew what his granddaughter was up to: Trying to convince the Mississippi Legislature to adopt a flag she designed as its official flag. Although Sen. Stennis voted to support segregation, she said, his stand softened later in life.

Today’s state flag, which a sizable part of the Mississippi population finds objectionable, has the Rebel Battle Flag in its upper left corner, an emblem that has been co-opted by the KKK and other racist organizations. It is the last flag in the U.S. that includes Confederate imagery. Sen. Stennis voted to support segregation, she said, a stand he softened later in life, voting in 1982 to extend the Voting Rights Act.

“He didn’t fly the flag,” she said. “This (Look ahead) is what he taught me. That, and always put Mississippi first.”

Her flag, which has come to be known as the Stennis Flag, would put Mississippi first, she reasons. She sees it as a modern logo for the state.

She is not trying to convince supporters of the current flag they are wrong.

She is not confronting city councils and other boards and asking them to take the flag down.

“My focus is primarily grassroots,” she said. “Let the people of Mississippi take this on themselves and come to it on their own.”

People, she said, resist the idea that something is being taken away.

“My hashtag is ‘put it up,’” she said. “In addition to a new flag, which I call a logo, I’m working with legislators on ways to protect our current flag, and the magnolia flag as historically significant civilian variants.”

She just doesn’t want to see those flags at official functions and on public buildings.

“When I moved back four years ago, I wanted to put out a state flag and never would,” she said. “It’s not something that as a Mississippian I felt was a symbol I was comfortable with. It’s not something that I identified with.”

For a while, she thought the magnolia flag was an alternative she could support even though she didn’t think it was visual appealing. And then she did some research.

“It was commissioned and designed by the newly seceded Republic of Mississippi and so was directly tied to our state’s secession,” she said. “That made it 0 for 2 in my book.”

The magnolia flag has emerged as a viable alternative on the Coast. Gulfport, for example, flies it and the state flag. The state would take a similar approach if a bill sponsored by House Speaker Pro Tem Greg Snowden were to pass. Then there are other bills that would require the current flag to be flown on public buildings.

Stennis Flag Flyers, a group independent of Stennis that began in Bay St. Louis, also would like to see the new flag adopted.

“The (current) flag has been usurped by the white supremacists,” said Chris Roth, a retired Bay St. Louis businessman who started the group. “Any late night comedian can throw us under the bus.”

He, like Stennis, said he wants a state logo he can be proud of. One that he would be proud to use to represent the state to the rest of the world.

How to design a flag

And he likes her design.

“It is a good flag,” he said. “The symbolism is good. It captures the past. It’s futuristic. It shows us together as one.”

That’s no accident.

And she already had became a student of flag design and come up with a design that she believes makes a beautiful statement as a flag catching a breeze on a flag pole, as a lapel pin or a bumper sticker. She consulted “Good Flag, Bad Flag” author Ted Kaye, who had one piece of advice: Make the stars bigger. And the flag was done.

It has 19 stars in a circle that represents the 19 states that existed in 1817 when Mississippi became the 20th state. It is represented by the larger star in the middle of the circle. The blue star on the field of white is what Stennis calls an inverted “Bonnie Blue” that represents secession. The red bars in opposition represent “passionate differences we sometimes harbor.” The color red honors those who gave their lives in pursuit of liberty and justice. She said unlike the current flag, hers acknowledges those events but allows the individual to decide how they feel about them.

After the Charleston church massacre, Stennis was stirred.

“At that point, I thought put up or shut up,” she said. “When Charleston happened the conversation in this state began to take off.

Why fly it?

Roth is trying to build citizen support for the flag by convincing people across the state to fly it.

“It’s not a difficult decision to make,” he said. “Who is opposed to doing what’s good for Mississippi?”

He said that’s the same decision faced by politicians in Jackson, who could choose to keep the current flag or pick the two-flag option. Or, they could pass either Sonya Williams-Barnes’ bill or Rep. Kathy Sykes’ bill to adopt the Stennis flag. House Speaker Philip Gunn said after Charleston that it was time to change the flag. But a flag bill hasn’t made it to the floor since he’s been speaker.

Stennis said the decision on the flag is, by precedent, the responsibility of lawmakers, who have had no problem naming a state fossil, state mammal, state bird or state flower. And she sees signs that this time, unlike 2001, when a referendum on the flag was held, they won’t abdicate that responsibility.

“There is bipartisan support, the numbers are edging in the right direction but I don’t think we have the votes yet,” she said.

Meanwhile, Roth said he’ll be trying to build grass roots support on the Coast.

“Let’s make it a citizen’s cause,” he said he told his group. “Needless to say, to motivate people to take one little positive action is a big challenge.”

He said people tell him they would like a new flag and would fly a Stennis Flag if they could get it but that’s often as far as it goes. The flag never goes up in front of their homes.

It’s changing though. Flag sales are increasing steadily. Neither Stennis, nor the Flag Flyers make any money off the sales.

“It’s not near what we would like to see,” he said. “Whether this initiative is an effective one or not remains to be seen. People aren’t necessarily influenced by logic but by emotion. And we want to create a positive emotion for the flag.”

Paul Hampton: 228-284-7296, @JPaulHampton