Emanuella Grinberg, CNN, June 19, 2016
It’s the last state flag to feature the Confederate battle emblem, and for a moment after the 2015 Charleston shootings it seemed like its days were numbered.
Several municipalities in Mississippi removed the state flag from government property in the wake of the Charleston, South Carolina, shooting that left nine African-American churchgoers dead. So did the University of Mississippi–no small gesture for a school steeped in tradition–and Gov. Phil Bryant’s alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi.
Mississippi attorney Carlos Moore told CNN in April that he filed the lawsuit after the Legislature failed to act on bills proposed in the wake of Charleston. Hence the choice of Washington as the rally’s setting on Flag Day, said actress and rally co-organizer Aunjanue Ellis, who lives in the Mississippi city of McComb.
“The fact that a state in our country is allowed to carry the emblem of a foreign country, one used by terrorist organizations, is unacceptable,” she said.
After South Carolina lawmakers voted to permanently remove the flag from statehouse grounds, other states began to take up the issue. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley directed that four Confederate flags be taken down from a Confederate memorial at the state capitol so they would not distract from legislative issues. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe ordered an end to Sons of Confederate Veterans specialty license plates that, like Georgia’s and Tennessee’s, featured the Confederate emblem.
Local battles over Confederate monuments sprang up in New Orleans, Baltimore, Louisville and Charlottesville. The U.S. House voted in May to ban Confederate flags from national veterans cemeteries except on two days: Memorial Day and Confederate Heritage Day in states that observe it. Tuesday, the Southern Baptist Convention urged its members to “discontinue the display of the Confederate battle flag” as a sign of solidarity with their “African-American brothers and sisters.”
Mississippi seemed poised to act on the state flag after Speaker Gunn spoke out on the issue, saying “As a Christian, I believe our state’s flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed.” Cities including Macon, Columbus, Grenada, Magnolia, Hattiesburg, Clarksdale, Starkville, Yazoo City and Greenwood voted or issued executive orders to remove the state flag; others, including Petal and Gautier, voted to keep it.
Observers say a lack of political leadership in Mississippi’s Republican-led House and administration on the issue is maintaining the status quo in the state despite growing national sentiment against symbols of the Confederacy.
Ellis has become the public face of the fight by penning passionate op-eds and using award show red carpets to spread her message through fashion statements. Her family has deep roots in Mississippi; she was born in San Francisco but raised in Mississippi in the same home where her mother grew up.
To her, the Confederate emblem is a symbol of racism that does not represent modern-day Mississippi.
After staging a handful of rallies this year in the state capital of Jackson, Ellis and her allies brought their fight to Washington in an attempt to frame the debate as a national issue, she said.
“This is about America making a decision about who it is,” Ellis said.
And, as Bryant and supporters of the current flag point out, residents of the state have already made their opinion clear on the issue.
In a 2001 referendum, 65% of Mississippians voted to keep the Confederate emblem instead of replace it with 20 white stars on a blue field to represent Mississippi’s status as the 20th state.
Lawmakers such as Sen. John Horhn attempted to change the flag through several legislative attempts. He proposed appointing a committee to create a new flag and tabled a measure to put it to a voter referendum, among other means.
“The enthusiasm did not reach the hearts and souls of our top political leaders, especially those on the Republican side of the house,” he said.
To Horhn, who is African-American, the reason is clear: “Racism is still very much a part of the fabric of Mississippi,” permeating policy decisions big and small.
“We have not come to terms with that issue especially as it relates to black and white relationships,” he said.
The flag issue is a perfect example, he said. The inclusion of a Confederate symbol is a “slap in the face” to most African-Americans in the state, who make up 38% of the population.
“I understand that some people might see it as part of their heritage but I don’t buy into the concept that it should be the heritage of the state. Others have a heritage, too, and that flags contradicts a lot of feelings about what our heritage ought to be.”