The state flag of Washington stands out among its brethren: not only is it uniquely green, it uniquely bears the likeness of an actual person. People appear on many US state flags, but other than on Washington’s they stand for generic farmers, pioneers, etc. (Many believe the figures on Kentucky’s flag are Daniel Boone and Henry Clay, but this is unsanctioned by any official document.)
Just in case the viewer is unfamiliar with George Washington, the Daughters of the American Revolution in designing the flag have helpfully included the entire state seal, which identifies itself with a circular inscription: THE SEAL OF THE STATE OF WASHINGTON 1889. Alas, for the extremely literally minded, we are left with a flag that could be read as saying that it is a seal.
Confused yet? As a public service, we offer the following improvement:
The NewMSFlag people are currently collecting signatures to qualify The Flag for All Mississippians Act as Initiative 55 on the November 2018 [!] ballot. This would add the following to the state constitution: “The flag of the State of Mississippi shall not contain or include any reference to the Confederate army’s battle flag or to the Confederacy.” (It does not propose a new flag, but forces the creation and adoption of one by making the current flag unconstitutional.) In addition to the coalition’s founder, Sharon C. Brown, two Baptist pastors express their support on the initiative’s page on Ballotpedia.
Of these, Initiative 46 “State Heritage” is most colorful and expansive. In addition to flag-related declarations, it defines the state to be “principally Christian and quintessentially Southern”, makes English the official language (making an exception for “Latin or French” for heraldry purposes), requires the state song “Dixie” (or “Go, Mississippi”) to be played immediately after the national anthem, defines “Colonel Reb” and “Bully” (the Bulldog) to be the official mascots of Ole Miss and Mississippi State, respectively, designates April to be “Confederate Heritage Month”, and nullifies the repeal of an article in the constitution that had changed “borders and boundaries” of the state. Sections III and XI deal with flags:
The state flag of Mississippi shall be the state flag adopted in 1894, which has been in continuous use since 1894, and which was confirmed by statewide vote in 2001. The state flag of Mississippi shall be displayed in front of all public buildings, including but not limited to all state, county, and municipal buildings and any school receiving state funding. Wherever the national flag is displayed on public land or in public buildings, a state flag of equal size shall also be displayed. In Mississippi public schools and other public institutions, whenever the pledge of allegiance to the national flag is recited, the state flag salute shall be recited immediately thereafter. The state flag salute shall be: “I salute the flag of Mississippi and the sovereign [sic] state for which it stands with pride in her history and achievements and with confidence in her future under the guidance of Almighty God.” [Section III]
In honor of the Mississippians who served under this military flag, the Confederate Battle Flag, measuring at minimum four feet by four feet, shall be permanently displayed on a flag-pole directly behind and above the monument to Confederate women on the state capitol’s exterior grounds. The right to place and display flags at veterans’ graves shall not be infringed. Within Mississippi, all publicly owned, publicly held, or publicly managed Confederate or Confederate-themed items, including but not limited to monuments, statues, works of art, relics, markers, signs, names, titles, structures, roads, parks, graves, and cemeteries shall be preserved and maintained by the state government, which may delegate applicable duties to the respective counties or municipalities for this purpose; for all cases in which said items were renamed, the more historical name shall take precedence and be reestablished in full. [Section XI]
The Jackson Free Press reports that in the state legislature there is a proposal to de-fund any university or state government that refuses to fly the existing state flag (as several have done). The same article reports a proposal by Mississippi House Speaker Pro Tempore Greg Snowden (presumably no relation to Edward) for the state to have two state flags, one with the battle flag and one without — which has raised some eyebrows with its echo of the infamous “separate but equal”. (This backs down from Snowden’s statement in June: “I believe any state flag should be a common symbol citizens can unite behind and proudly embrace as their own. If our flag is no longer useful for those purposes (to instill pride and unity across the broad spectrum of citizens), then we should reconsider its current status.”)
Finally, on a more constructive note, artist Laurin Stennis, the granddaughter of segregationist Senator John C. Stennis (1901-1995), has proposed a new design for the state flag.
Nineteen small blue stars with one large star in the center represents Mississippi as the twentieth state to join the Union. The small stars form a circle, a shape that represents wholeness, unity, and potential. Red bars stand opposite one another, recognizing the passionate differences we sometimes harbor. Joining all elements is a field of white symbolizing illumination, spirituality, brightness and promise.
The US is not known for the overall design quality of its state flags, with many being uninspired, easily confusable “seal on a bedsheet” designs. Yet changing a state flag in order to improve its basic design is a very difficult task, so difficult there is only one good example: Colorado.
This is not to say that state flag designs don’t change, nor that change isn’t often motivated by a desire to improve an in-distinctive design. But time and again this change is for the worse, often taking the form of writing the name of the state in LARGE CAPITAL LETTERS across the front of the flag.
Why is this a problem? At a pragmatic level, writing on a flag is more often than not illegible. When on a flag pole, either it’s hidden by folds when the flag is hanging limp, or it’s blurred by ripples when the flag is flying in the wind. And when hung so that the flag doesn’t move (for example, indoors), if it’s placed so that the back of the flag is visible, the viewer is treated to a bunch of backwards text.
At a symbolic level, it’s a symptom of an underlying failure. As Ted Kaye says, “If you need to write the name of what you’re representing on your flag, your symbolism has failed.”
Take a look at all these examples of state governments deciding that to address their flags’ failed symbolism, they need to put the state’s name on the flag. (And these examples do not include state flags that have had the name on them from the beginning.)
A convoluted history, but the major downgrade happened when the state flag committee told Willie Kavanaugh Hocker to add ARKANSAS to the design.
A rare example of a big redesign in 1925 that technically involved removing writing from the flag, but the “46” wasn’t seen as the problem — the star on a red flag suggesting communism was.
A complex case, as the 1882 change was a big improvement, and the 1897 change a big downgrade (but because of unfortunate foreground and background colors, not the addition of text).
This is bit of an outlier, as the word VERMONT has never been particularly prominent. Interesting also in that the design has been purposely downgraded twice, in 1804 and in 1923. Is it not due for an upgrade as the pendulum swings again?
With the exception of Florida, all eleven states that seceded during the US Civil War have flag pledges — though all of these were adopted far later, from 1933 (Texas) to 2007 (North Carolina). This historical legacy of “states rights” might account for these ten cases, but what of the other seven states (Kentucky, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island, and South Dakota)?
Here is some contextual info for most of these non-Confederate cases:
New Mexico: The pledge was a creation of a chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It originated in 1955 when the chapter was celebrating the opening of Interstate 10, which the UDC called “the Jefferson Davis Highway”, near the NM/TX border. In 1963, prompted by another highway opening ceremony, the local chapter successfully lobbied the NM legislature to make the pledge official.
According to its designer the state flag of Mississippi includes the Confederate battle flag in order to “perpetuate in a legal and lasting way that dear battle flag under which so many of our people had so gloriously fought”. Dating back to 1894, the design has certainly lasted — 121 years so far.
In the widespread backlash against Confederate imagery following the massacre of six black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina this summer, Mississippi’s flag has attracted significant negative attention. State House Speaker Philip Gunn and US Senator Roger Wicker, both prominent Republicans, have publicly endorsed removing the Confederate cross from the flag, and last month the University of Mississippi at Oxford and all campuses of the University of Southern Mississippi have removed the flag from official display.
A New York Times article recently assessed the uphill fight opponents of the flag will need to win in order to redesign the state flag. According to the article, the flag remains popular but divisive. A 2001 referendum to change it was defeated after being opposed by 90 percent of whites, despite its support by 95 percent of blacks (these numbers from the 2006 book Mississippi Politics); without substantial change by Mississippi’s whites, a new referendum would likely suffer the same fate:
If a new flag is to be adopted, the simple math of a 60 percent white majority statewide dictates that it will come down to whether enough whites support it, either in the Legislature or at the polls. Feelings about the flag run so deep — as evident from the recent arrest of a man in Tupelo who was accused of firebombing a Walmart for not selling Confederate merchandise — that a widespread change of heart seems hard to fathom. (from Mississippi Flag, a Rebel Holdout, Is in a New Fight, Campbell Robertson, NY Times).
Nevertheless, the Flag for All Mississippians Coalition (NewMSFlag.org) is moving forward with a campaign to amend the state constitution with this text: The flag of the State of Mississippi shall not contain or include any reference to the Confederate army’s battle flag or to the Confederacy.
The Jackson Clarion-Ledger found in a recent poll of 1500 readers that 45% supported the current flag, 24% the Magnolia flag of 1861, 12% the 2001 proposal, 9% the “Bonnie Blue” flag, and 10% “something else”. Though a popular alternative, the Magnolia flag is hardly free on Confederate symbolism, as it was a symbol of secessionist Mississippi and used by the United Confederate Veterans of the state. In an excellent article on the history of the Mississippi flag in the Jackson Free Press, Arielle Dreher points out that the Magnolia flag was banned by the US government in 1865 as a “symbol of treason”.
In terms of what “something else” might look like, the Clarion-Ledger invited readers to submit designs and selected 10 of them for (currently open) online polling.
A final thought about George Washington facing left or right (see VexTab #48 & VexTab #51): Chris Bedwell sent me images of a home-made Washington State flag with George facing both ways. (Thanks, Chris.)
The images had me look at the money in my wallet. A quiz for readers: Without looking at your money…
Michael Green is a designer, self-proclaimed Flag Geek, and author of the excellent Branding the Nations blog on Medium.com. In his posting on (the sad state of) US state flags, The Good, the “Meh” and the Ugly, he asks a fundamental question that is too often taken for granted in discussions, debates, and contests about flag design: “What is the point of a state flag anyway?” His answer: state pride.
Flag design isn’t where state pride is born, but it’s where it can live and grow.
This claim is not uncontroversial. One can imagine other purposes for state flags: to mark official government buildings, or to allow the state to participate in flags-of-all-states displays. On Medium, it produced this exchange in the comments section:
Do we really need people rallying around their states, a kind of scaled down nationalism (which easily turns into unproductive competitiveness and even resentments)? [Comment by Norman Dale]
It’s a good question and it is worth exploring. I definitely see the resentment a lot living in Texas. But I personally think the good outweighs the bad. [Reply by Michael Green]
Competition brings progress, and trying to out-do other states can only add to our productivity as a nation. I love looking at this seldom approached topic. [Reply by Jon Sauder]
But instilling pride is certainly important, especially when it comes to adoption of a flag by a populace. In his essay, Green relates state pride into a “proper hierarchy of pride”:
This hierarchy can manifest itself in symbols at one level referencing symbols at a higher one, as when sports teams incorporate their state flags into their logos.
But poor state flag design inverts this hierarchy, and results in a kind of synechdoche — using a part to represent the whole:
But in states where they have no decent visual branding in the form of a flag, state sports teams (with their superior logos, traditions and colors) usually take over the visual branding of a state. Citizens then funnel what state pride they have into their respective team. This creates more “team pride” than “state pride” and can segment state pride when you have more than one dominant team.
This is an excellent point, certainly born out in Oregon, where the logos and flags of the Oregon State University Beavers and the University of Oregon Ducks are seen way more often than the meh-is-putting-it-kindly Oregon state flag. And in this rivalry of visual branding, the Ducks have an advantage, as they use not just professionally designed graphics but in fact one of the most famous global brands — they use Disney Corporation’s Donald Duck to be the Oregon Duck.
Passions around Ducks vs. Beavers run high and reach their boiling point in an annual “Civil War” game. As Green points out, these “segment” symbols do a poor job of representing pride in the state as a whole, however. Without a decent state flag, Oregon pride is most clearly shown in the domain of bumper stickers.
Green’s pride hierarchy also provides a way to think about the relationship between the “visual branding” of the Major League Soccer Portland Timbers and the city of Portland. When the Timbers were promoted from minor league to major league status in 2011, the Portland city flag was seldom seen — in the city, or at their games. It flew in the city at city hall and in the main public square, and at a few other sites. It flew at Timbers games from a stadium flagpole, and the fanatical Timbers Army waved some in the stands, but not as much as they waved Timbers logo flags, Cascadia flags, and even green-and-white Nigerian flags.
As its use at Timbers games increased, Portland residents became more used to seeing their flag (and learning that their city had a flag), and its use outside of Timbers games increased — and it became a more important part of the city’s official branding, as in 2014 Portland Fire and Rescue was instructed to fly it at all of their stations throughout the city.
In terms of Green’s hierachy then, the Timbers/Portland flag example shows how — in the context of there being no compelling visual branding at the state level — a team can make use of a well-designed but underused city flag, and begin a positive feedback loop between the “team” and “city” levels, strengthening the branding (and pride) of both.
Vexillologist Clay Moss has published a new essay about once and possibly future flags of the state of Mississippi. He writes:
As the current Mississippi flag has been burdened with controversy, particularly through the last quarter century, there has always been the idea that Mississippi’s Magnolia flag might again someday be adopted as the state’s flag. This document briefly examines the seven Magnolia flags that we are aware of today and provides a speculative look at what a possible new state flag might look like based on the original. More could possibly be rediscovered in the future, but for now, these are the ones we know about.