The last US state flag with a slavery emblem has officially been retired

Mississippi’s “new “magnolia” mutes the menace.
Mississippi’s “new “magnolia” mutes the menace.
Image: Mississippi Department of Archives and History/
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The last US state flag to bear a pro-slavery emblem has been voted out.

Mississippi voters approved a new design featuring a magnolia blossom surrounded by 20 stars against a dark blue background in yesterday’s general elections. The new design, titled “In God We Trust,” replaces the state’s 126-year-old pennant, which incorporated elements of the Confederate battle flag in the upper-left corner.

The Confederate flag was created in 1860s to represent the 11 Southern states that fought for the right to enslave Black people. Present-day supporters claim the flag is a marker of Southern pride, but it is experienced by many Americans as a hate symbol.

Many have attempted to overhaul Mississippi’s incendiary state flag. But it took the global protests spurred by the police killing of George Floyd to incite legislators to take action. In June, amid pressure from Black Lives Matter activists including the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Mississippi governor Tate Reeves signed a bill to retire the old flag and begin the process of finding a new design. He said it was a first step toward healing the scourge of racism and oppression that has defined Mississippi’s public image over the years.

Mississippi removes Confederate emblem from state flag
The old flag is lowered at the State Capitol in Jackson, Mississippi in July.
Image: Reuters/Suzi Altman

An unplanned vexillology mash-up

The origin story of Mississippi’s new state flag is a fascinating study in the many hands that shape modern public symbols. A nine-member committee reviewed some 3,000 flag designs over the course of two months. The Commission to Redesign the Mississippi State Flag, which notably didn’t include a professional design expert, narrowed it down to two finalists and put it to a public vote.

The runner-up, titled “The Great River Flag,” is based on a historical seal. Boston-based graphic designer Micah Whitson says this design attempts to capture the state’s “mix of cultures, heritage, trials, and tribulations.” The winning design, which was originally called “The New Magnolia,” is credited to a team of designers who didn’t exactly plan to collaborate with one another.

Sue Anna Joe, a Chinese-American web designer based in San Francisco, came up with the central motif, inspired by a the memory of the flowering tree in her childhood backyard in Greenwood, Mississippi. She tells Quartz that she’s overwhelmed by how much the support the design got across the state.

“Growing up in Mississippi, I saw how the flag divided people. I was surprised that 70% were happy with moving forward with it,” she says. “It’s a real strong indication that people are ready look to forward to the future—and that’s a really big thing for Mississippians.”

Her family, who immigrated from Hoiping, China, in the 1960s, are ecstatic about her contribution to the state’s identity. “I’ve tried to keep cool and my expectations in check. But my mom, my brother and sister have all been more excited about it than I have,” Joe laughs. “Some of the elders I grew up with are congratulating my mother on Facebook!”

The overall layout of the new flag, meanwhile, is credited to Rocky Vaughan, the creative director of a small screenprinting shop in the city of Starkville.

Mississippi's state flag, 1861–1865 features a magnolia tree
A magnolia tree in Mississippi’s first state flag, 1861–1865

A self-described flag design fanatic, Vaughan has noodled with over 100 alternatives for the state pennant. But the winning design wasn’t one of the four designs he submitted to the committee that also featured a magnolia blossom. Magnolias, a hardy, dramatic bloom that symbolizes hospitality, is an obvious choice. Mississippi’s first state flag, in fact, featured a magnolia tree.

“I think what I did was give the basic ingredients,” Vaughn said to local news outlet WAPT. He’s pleased to be credited for designing the flag, though it’s not exactly how he envisioned it.  Vaughn has quibbles about the gold bars flanking the flower. “I like the red against the blue,” he said. “I’m about looks. What looks like Mississippi?”

Those gold bars were added later in the process by Kara Giles, executive assistant to Robyn Tannehill, the mayor of Oxford, Mississippi, and a member of the nine-member flag redesign committee. Giles, who also owns a stationery design business, said she believed that the gold bars made the design look more “stately.” Graphic designer Dominique Pugh is also credited for helping with the layout.

Finally, Clay Moss, an illustrator and flag expert from Florida, was hired by the state as a consultant. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History tells Quartz that Moss made some last-minute changes to the design to comply with industry standards.

Joe says she doesn’t mind that the flag is a mash-up of different people’s ideas. “We knew that the flag commission had the option to pick and choose from different designs,” she says. “I’m really glad that the voters are pleased with it … What I really love about it is that it has some color to it. It helps our state flag stand out.”

Per the results of the Nov. 3 election, Mississippi’s new state flag will be displayed on public buildings, signage, and official forms by early next year. In the meantime, face masks, yard signs, and bumper stickers with the new design are already available.