New Miss. flag has surprising champion: A segregationist’s grandchild
Peggy Wallace Kennedy holds her favorite photograph of herself with her father, former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, at her home in Montgomery, Ala.
© Julie Bennett/For The Washington Post
JACKSON, Miss. —Things are slow to change in this Old South bastion. The brass bird cage of an elevator in the Mississippi State Capitol that Laurin Stennis used to ride as a 6-year-old coming to see her daddy was still operated by hand when she stepped into it one day in early January, a 46-year-old coming to shake things up. Or at least nudge things along.
“Ground floor, please, sir,” she said to the operator.
But some things have changed. The lawmaker who greeted Stennis in the grand marbled lobby below was an African American woman, something unheard of when Stennis’s father, John H. Stennis, was a member of the nearly all-white, all-male state legislature and her grandfather, John C. Stennis, was a legendary champion of segregation in the U.S. Senate.
“I’ve already filed your bill,” state Rep. Kathy Sykes said after hugs. “I’m just waiting on the number.”
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It was the start of a new legislative session, and Sykes, a Democrat from Jackson, had once again introduced legislation to replace the Mississippi state flag — the last in the country that still incorporates the Confederate battle flag — with a design widely known as the “Stennis Flag.” It features a big blue star on a white field, encircled by 19 smaller stars and flanked by red bands.
It’s graphically pleasing and increasingly popular. If the Stennis Flag eventually replaces the old banner — its supporters aren’t expecting much to happen this year, with state elections looming — the banner might help alter the view the world has of Mississippi, a state with a brutal history of Klan murders and racial oppression. It could alter the reputation of one of the state’s most famous political names, as well.
Stennis, an artist, didn’t set out to lead a campaign to change the flag. But she couldn’t bring herself to fly the one she calls “a blinking neon sign of negativity,” and she knew she had the eye — and the political pedigree — to offer a something better.
“I think people appreciate how positive I’m trying to be and have responded to that,” she said during a break from the lobbying. “If this is a gift that I can leave, then I will sleep like a baby.”
Stennis is not the only descendant of white Jim Crow-era leaders working to break their forbears’ lingering grip on Southern mores, updating their family legacies along the way.
In 2015, after a white supremacist murdered nine African American worshipers in a Charleston church, Paul Thurmond, the youngest son of the late South Carolina senator and former Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, helped lead the drive to strip the Confederate symbol from South Carolina’s flag.
Peggy Wallace Kennedy, 69, daughter of late Alabama governor George Wallace, doesn’t sugarcoat the actions of her father, who pledged “segregation forever” and blocked black students from entering the University of Alabama. Instead, she has countered his politics with her own, linking arms with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 2017 and walking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral route with the civil rights leader’s daughter, Bernice King.
“It can be hard to take all this on,” said Kennedy, whose father came to renounce racism and apologize for his actions. “I did it because I wanted my children to have a different legacy than the one that was left to me.”
She knew about Laurin Stennis’s flag fight in Mississippi. “What a brave and wonderful thing she’s doing,” Kennedy said. “I’m rooting for her.”
‘It’s going statewide’
Stennis is an unlikely activist. She loves seeing her flag fly; she hates pushing for it.
“I’m just full of dread, to be honest,” she said as she mounted the steps of the statehouse with uncomfortable shoes and two plastic bags filled with Stennis Flag lapel pins. It was Capital Day, a kickoff schmooze-fest of legislators and lobbyists. But Stennis hesitated as one lawmaker after another passed by unmolested.
“Dang it, missed my chance,” she said as a line of influencers invited by the Mississippi Economic Council boarded a bus as she stood by.
It’s not that she doesn’t understand the game. Her grandfather was 71 when she was born, but she remembers stumping with him during his sixth and final Senate race in 1982. He was a master of that body, an Armed Services Committee chairman whose name is now attached to an aircraft carrier.
But the Democrat, who died in 1995, was also a staunch defender of segregation, one of the authors of the 1954 “Southern Manifesto,” a howl of protest against the Brown v. Board of Education school integration decision and an intellectual underpinning of the South’s years-long “massive resistance” to integration. In 1983, Stennis was one of four Senate Democrats to vote against a national holiday to honor King’s birthday.
Laurin Stennis took her politics more from her father, a Princeton graduate who quoted philosopher Albert Camus and publicly broke with the elder Stennis on issues of race.
She credits her father — who served 15 years in the state legislature — with helping her grandfather evolve. The senator eventually supported the renewal of the Voting Right Act in 1983.
Stennis is proud of both men, but she wanted nothing to do with their line of work. She is more at ease in her downtown Jackson art studio, a converted garage where she makes woodcuts of possums and pelicans and other Southern iconography. She lives with an ancient black lab on a block lined with Craftsman houses — one of which belonged to Eudora Welty. Many of her neighbors have Stennis Flag yard signs.
She began thinking of the design soon after returning to Jackson in 2013 after long stints in New Orleans and North Carolina. She was happy to be back but couldn’t fly the old state flag.
It’s a common complaint. While many in a state where more than 58 percent of voters cast ballots for President Trump embrace the banner, it’s hard to find it on any but state buildings around Jackson.
The $107 million Mississippi Civil Rights Museum — a wrenching walk-through timeline of more than 580 lynchings, the killings of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Freedom Riders Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, and dozens of others — opened last year with no flagpoles at all.
After self-study in vexillology — the art of flag design — and a lot of erasing, Stennis settled on the circle-star design. The 20 stars represent Mississippi’s entry into the union as the 20th state; the blue star on the white background is an inversion of the white star on a blue field of “Bonnie Blue Flag,” which was waved when the state seceded.
“I inverted it because I don’t celebrate that dark moment in our history, but it has to be acknowledged,” she said.
Stennis sent her design to Ted Kaye, the author of “Good Flag, Bad Flag” and a consultant on flag design around the world. He suggested making the stars a bit bigger but otherwise loved it. His cardinal flag principles include being simple, distinct and free of letters or seals (which become blurry at bumper-sticker scales).
“This flag wins on all of those,” said Kaye. “I give her a solid A. And she’s sure got a name that gives it legitimacy.”
Stennis showed her design to friends, but not until the Charleston massacre reignited the flag debate did she debut it in earnest. Immediately it began popping up in public, especially in Jackson, Oxford, beach towns and other liberal pockets of the state. A municipal judge put it up in his courtroom. But it appeared in some conservative quarters, too.
“I like her design,” said Rob Rall, a boat-shop owner who was Trump’s campaign chairman in Hinds County. He has a Stennis Flag on his truck and flies one over his RV. “I think in order to change the flag, we need something good to change it to.”
The last big push to get rid of the current flag failed overwhelmingly in a 2001 referendum. The proposed replacement, featuring a round field of stars, was widely derided as the “pizza flag,” making it an easy victim of the protect-our-heritage arguments still heard today.
But support for some kind of change is growing, led by a business lobby that has yearned to remove the Confederate symbol for years because it is seen as an obstacle to economic development.
In 2016, Sykes surprised Stennis by introducing a bill to make hers the official state flag.
“It got very real after that,” Stennis said. At a lunch meeting of business leaders, Rep. Philip Gunn, the Republican House speaker, endorsed her design as the strongest alternative and dubbed it “the Stennis Flag.”
She wanted a local company to reap the financial gains of the growing demand, so she gave exclusive rights to sell the flag — along with all the profits — to A Complete Flag Source, a dealer off Interstate 55 filled with Ole Miss banners, POW flags and ensigns from around the world. It quickly became the company’s top online seller, with more than 2,700 flags, stickers and pins purchased.
The owners are lifelong Mississippians. Brenda McIntyre, 67, has become a Stennis Flag enthusiast. Her husband Jim, 70, likes the design but not the intent.
“I don’t want to change; the flag we have is fine,” he said, glancing at Stennis one afternoon with a mix of taunt and apology. “But I know it’s probably going to happen.”
Stennis just smiled. She isn’t trying to shame anyone.
While she may hate the politicking, it found her easily at the capitol. “Thank you for what you’re doing,” said a woman who spotted Stennis from afar and came over to ask for a sticker. “Love the flag,” called another.
“Laurin, I saw your flag outside a radio station up in Greenwood,” said Bill Ellison, a public radio producer who had just driven across the Delta. “It’s going statewide now.”
Under the soaring rotunda, she ran into David Blount, a Democratic state senator who has co-sponsored Stennis Flag bills, all of which failed to make it out of committee. He expects the same result this session because it’s an election year in Mississippi. But as more people fly the Stennis Flag, more lawmakers will notice, he said.
“You gotta keep at it,” Blount said.
‘We need a flagpole’
At lunch two hours later, she got a chance to expand her groundswell. Bully’s Restaurant — where they serve fried chicken and greens on school lunch trays — is popular with Mississippians from all over the political spectrum, despite walls lined with photos of Malcolm X and Barack Obama.
A couple of state senators were walking out as Stennis walked in and tiredly dropped her wares on the table.
“What are those?” asked waitress Sandra Robinson, pointing at the flag pins and stickers. Stennis explained and gave her a bagful for the staff. A few minutes later, co-owner Greta Brown Bully was grilling Stennis about this new flag.
“Tyrone, we need a flagpole,” she called to her husband in the kitchen.
“Okay, we’ll get a flagpole,” he answered, coming out.
“This is John Stennis’s granddaughter,” Bully said. “She’s got a new flag.”
“John Stennis,” Tyrone Bully said thoughtfully. “How about that? Yeah, I see it in your face.”
“I’ve got Paw Paw’s ears,” Stennis said. “They kind of catch the breeze a little bit.”
Soon they were embracing, taking pictures and planning. Greta promised to talk the flag up to the lawmakers who came in to eat. She booked Stennis to be on her weekend radio show to promote it.
“I’m really proud of you,” the black woman said to the white one. “John Stennis’s granddaughter. You’ve made a flag for all of us.”
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