Flags of Our Fathers

I’m sincerely trying, but I just can’t get my head wrapped around our new state flag. It seems jumped up, contrived – put together by a committee of overwrought west coast art students who know more about Matisse than Mississippi history. The people have spoken, and I have nothing against magnolias; but I thought the whole idea of this revisionist history exercise was to get away from banjos, hoop skirts, and mint juleps. I’m not sure the magnolia blossom falls far enough away from that tree. At worst, it’s just an innocuous “placebo,” the Latin for “I shall be pleasing.”

Personally, I preferred the so-called “Great River Flag,” featuring a shield design based on the 1798 seal of the Mississippi Territory. It had relevance and gravitas. We were only permitted to see a few of the 3,000 or so designs submitted to the Flag Selection Committee, but I’ve heard persistent rumors that the mosquito, boll weevil, and catfish would have been serious contenders had they been allowed to see the light of day. I would have also given the catalpa worm and the Black Mouth Cur strong consideration. For all I know, the flag committee is the descendant of the committee that, many years ago, promoted planting magnolias along all the major highways entering Mississippi – a canopy of magnolias, so to speak. Well, you can see how that turned out: a few mottled, whiplashed survivors huddled on the side of the road, gasping for oxygen amid the exhaust fumes.

Don’t get me wrong, I had just retired from the Navy in 2001 when Mississippi voted 2 to 1 to keep the 1894 flag, and I remember telling my Sumrall High School history class before the election that “any flag that has a symbol that hurts and alienates 1/3 of the population, people who pay their taxes and die for their country, should be changed.” I just don’t like some vague “committee” telling me what my choices are, and that the magnolia is the flag for me. After working for the government so long, I guess I’m just biased against committees. I put them in the same category as government “experts” – you know, what Ronald Reagan said were the scariest words in the world: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.”

Change to a flag’s design is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, whether you think of it as Old Glory, the Red, White, and Blue, the Stars and Stripes, or the Star-Spangled Banner, our national flag has gone through 27 iterations since Betsy Ross did or did not stitch the first one together in 1776. Each new version represented the addition of one or more states as the United States grew westward to fulfill what historians have referred to as its “manifest destiny.” While we have had the current 50-star flag since 1960, with the addition of Hawaii, Mississippi contributed its star to the third, twenty-star design of 1818 when it became a state in 1817 along with stars added for four states previously admitted to the Union: Tennessee (1796), Ohio (1803), Louisiana (1812), and Indiana (1816). While both stars and stripes were initially added to the new flags, this grew unwieldy, and the design soon reverted to the original thirteen stripes.

When the English writer, Rudyard Kipling, the unofficial poet laureate of the 19th century British Empire, wrote the following words in his poem, “The English Flag,” about the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, “I have spread its fold o’er the dying, adrift in a hopeless sea; I have hurled it swift on the slaver, and seen the slave set free,” he struck a resonate chord with me. A flag is a powerful symbol; for example, the American flag is probably the most recognized symbol in the world, except maybe for Coca-Cola. The only other distinctly “American” symbol that I can think of that anywhere approaches its significance is the majestic bald eagle. I’m not sure how serious he was, but one of our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, supposedly put forward the turkey, rather than the bald eagle, as our national bird, which would have given the formality of our institutions all the dignity of a Peter Sellers movie.

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