Tags and flags: the good, the bad and the ugly

By ELIZABETH QUINN,

In these divided times we live in, I hope we can agree on a couple of things: fat babies are the cutest babies, videos of people falling or being scared by loved ones on the internet are life-giving, none of us actually know how to navigate the roundabout in Ridgeland, people who unpack all their bags and complete the laundry cycle that ensues on the same day as returning from a long trip and/or have every box unpacked in a new house 36 hours after moving are psychopaths, there is no tired like kid-after-a-day-on-the-beach-tired, nothing gets you out of bed faster than the sound of your dog puking, Swenson’s had the best cheese soup but an Earthquake was actually kind of gross, nobody appreciates a random and bizarre cool snap (meaning a high of 89 instead of 99) in July like a Mississippian, and the new Mississippi license plates are ugly.

The seal placement on the tag is off-center. This is a greater transgression than even the horrific color choice. They put it off-center so it’s between the seven digits of the license plate number. Three digits, seal nobody can read, four digits. I do not care. The seal should be centered. I get that they needed to put it in that space so that you could actually see it at all, but you still can’t tell what it is unless you’re stuck behind one creeping up I-55 north at 5 p.m. But even then, you’d be hard pressed to know what you’re looking at other than a seal of some sort. Seals belong on letterhead and podiums where politicians deliver speeches.

And the color. Burnt khaki? Dehydrated human urine gold? Excessive coffee-drinker tooth stain yellow? What color do you call that ombre fade business that makes up the background color? Ugly. You call it ugly.

Our last license plate featured B.B. King’s guitar which was so legendary that she had a name, Lucille. Do not try to tell me that’s not cooler than a state seal that looks like it wandered off of a podium at the Capitol building after one too many beers and passed out, catawampus in the middle of a tooth-tartar tan backdrop.

The upsetting design of the new tags made me even more excited when the Stennis Flag was approved as a specialty plate option beginning August 1. They needed 300 pre-orders to put the plate into production and I couldn’t write my $30 check fast enough. That fee goes to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Museum of Mississippi History—I can get behind that and I’m already all in on the Stennis Flag.

I’m willing to bet that changing the Mississippi state flag is not one of those things we can all agree on like viral videos of people jumping out of garbage cans at their moms. It has become so polarizing that most politicians won’t even talk about it for fear of alienating too many of their constituents. Their refusal to address changing the flag has trickled down making private citizens reluctant to talk about it. I can’t think of a single friend of mine who I have discussed this with that doesn’t think we should change the flag; but many don’t want to risk appearing disloyal to their candidate or party or current leaders so they take their cues from them and don’t talk about it.

When Laurin Stennis moved back to Mississippi after many years away, she was so happy to be back in her home state that she wanted to fly the flag but she couldn’t. So, she designed a flag that she can fly with pride, that all of us can. She consulted the preeminent vexillologists (read: flag nerds like Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory but with better social skills) in the country about design rules that make a good flag. Laurin pulled symbolism from the history and heritage of our state to create a flag that doesn’t try to whitewash the mistakes we’ve made or the differences the people of our state still have with one another—but she made those things the strongest part of the flag, the large red bars standing opposite one another. Learning from our mistakes and doing life side-by-side with people we don’t always agree with can be the strongest part of our state, if we let it.

One question Laurin has posed is, “What is the role of a flag?” If the answer to that is to be a symbol of what our state stands for, to represent the essence of what it means to be a Mississippian, then most would agree that our current flag is not accomplishing that goal.

Mississippi is so much more than her worst mistakes. Our current flag includes, arguably, the most recognizable symbol of Mississippi’s role in the Civil War, the confederate battle flag. Arguments over the continued use of that emblem on our state flag bring the passion we are known for to the surface in a way that doesn’t serve our state.

A flag should unite a state, not pit citizen against citizen. I don’t think the current flag tells the world anything about what we as a state revere and admire. It’s only telling one story from one part of our past and it’s selling her short.

In high school and college, I knew people, guys mostly, who had confederate flag stickers on their trucks or hats or t-shirts. To my knowledge, none of them do now. They didn’t have those stickers in high school because they thought slavery was rad and we needed to go back to that. They had them because they thought they represented the South. They thought the flag was a cool way to say ‘I’m a Mississippi kid, born and bred.’

But then they grew up and learned what messages that flag sent to the rest of the world and they didn’t put one on their next car or wear their nice, broken-in cap anymore. They were still proud to be Mississippians, but they found other ways to show that—ways that didn’t honor spilling blood for the right to own humans and that didn’t tell the rest of the world that the darkest part of our history was to be revered. It’s time we take that step as a state as well. It’s time to find another way to show what being a Mississippian means.

The Stennis Flag is not a corporate effort. It’s not a conspiracy to force political correctness on folks. It’s a love song to Mississippi, from a Mississippian, born and bred. Laurin Stennis has spent years perfecting the design and getting the word out on her own. She doesn’t have fancy financial backers—she spends her own money to spread the word about the flag. She gave local businesses the rights to sell the flag and she doesn’t make a nickel off of flag sales. On the Stennis flag website declaremississippi.com, you’ll find a page about the symbolism of each aspect of the flag—but you won’t find any negativity towards those who support the current flag.

A popular hashtag surrounding the flag change issue is #takeitdown, but you won’t see Laurin using it. In fact, you’ll see her asking supporters to use #putitup instead. She wants the Stennis flag to be a positive light shining on the state she loves. She supports the rights of those who like the current flag to display one anywhere on their property that they desire.

The current flag is a part of Mississippi’s history as well and should be included in the telling of Mississippi’s story—but it should do so from museums and history books, not from the flagpole of the Capitol. Laurin doesn’t see this as a party line issue—it’s not a flag for Democrats or for Republicans but for Mississippians. Some politicians have tried to make it an issue that divides us along party lines, but the highways of Mississippi tell another story.

I see at least a dozen Stennis Flag bumper stickers every day and they are snuggled up next to Reeves, Wicker, Hood, Waller, Hillary, and Trump stickers. I see them on cars with ‘Keep Fondren Funky’ stickers and Marine Corp emblems. They’re on the same cars as specialty license plates supporting every college in the state, Mississippi Farmers, and NASCAR. Unity, good design, and state pride aren’t red or blue. They are red, white, and blue—same as the Stennis Flag.

My daughters have asked me about my Stennis flag bumper sticker since I first put one on my car in August of 2017, mostly because they were mad that I wouldn’t put this large and obnoxious sticker from their preschool basketball program on my car (it was uglier than the new tags). My oldest was the only one old enough to explain it to at the time, but I’ve had variations of the same conversation with each of them since. My oldest knew about slavery and the Civil War.

She knew that Mississippi was on the wrong side of history but she didn’t know that our current flag bears a symbol of the choices Mississippi made back then. She asked lots of good questions and some I had better answers to than others. It’s hard to explain that I think some of the leaders of our state are wrong about the flag, but that it doesn’t make them bad people. Teaching her to respect our leaders and to never be afraid to question or disagree with them is harder than I expected. Question authority, sure—but not your mama.

Let’s not take this too far. But the best answer I had for her was in response to her question of, ‘What are we gonna do? Is somebody gonna change it?’ Yes, baby girl. We are.

At least, I hope we are. I know it’s up to us to make it clear to our leaders that it’s what we want. There isn’t a PAC funding Laurin’s work; there’s no lobbyist downtown being the voice of the Stennis flag. There are just a bunch of Mississippians flying a love song to their state in the front yard and slapping $2 stickers on their bumpers and, now, ordering specialty license plates that serve the dual purpose of telling the world which side of history you want to stand on and keeping that ugly, tooth-tartar tag off your car.

I don’t know what will happen with the flag, or when. But I know that whatever happens, I want to be able to say I was a part of it. I flew the flag and bought the sticker and ordered the tag.

Occasionally, I’ll buy a couple dozen stickers and give them away to friends and strangers alike. I want to be able to look at my kids and say, ‘I love my state, warts and all, and I did what I could to give her a symbol worthy of the best parts of her essence, not the worst.’ #putitup

Elizabeth Quinn makes her home in Northeast Jackson with her husband Percy and four children.

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