Last year, the terrorist act that took the lives of nine African-American churchgoers at Emmanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina shamed the state into legislating the Confederate Flag out of state recognition, joining Virginia, Alabama, and Georgia as former Confederate States who have done so in the past.
Mississippi State House Speaker Phillip Gunn expressed his support of changing the state flag in the aftermath of such a horrendous happening. There was an air of uncertainty emanating between the lines of a CNN article mentioning the possibility that Mississippi lawmakers may consider such legislation.
To be fair, it is not just Mississippi that won’t let go. During the Super Bowl Halftime Show there was a shot of the Confederate Battle Flag prominently displayed amid the Color Guard. Even amid the ranks of community and social activists, the issue of the flag often takes a backseat to matters like police brutality.
At the 47th Anual NAACP Image Awards, Aunjanue Ellis (Book of Negroes, Quantico) staged a fashion protest on the red carpet of the award show with a flowing white dress with a red handprint on the front and back with the words, “Take it Down Mississippi”, across the front in red letters.
She is a proud native of the state of Mississippi and a member of the Human Rights Collective - a group actively engaged in leveraging pressure to remove the Confederate flag in Mississippi, and America. Ellis sat down with us to express her dismay that her state of origin reneged upon addressing the need to remove a symbol of such degradation and what the next steps should be.
The Shadow League: Bring us up to date on the toils of the Mississippi Human Rights Collective and the status of the Confederate flag in that state.
Aunjanue Ellis: Those of us who want the flag to be changed, we’ve been talking about this for a long time. I personally have been doing some things on my own, writing editorials, placing billboards and what have you and we’re gaining very little traction. Fortunately, the massacre in South Carolina last summer accelerated the discussion. Governor Bryant’s response to the massacre was, ‘We understand the feelings of the outside, but we voted on it in 2001.'
The majority of voters chose to keep the flag as it is. In light of what happened in South Carolina, there was a move on the part of some folks who thought we should have a similar thing that happened in South Carolina, where they took their flag down from the State Capitol building. The Governor rebuffed. The Speaker of the House said we at least need to have a conversation about changing the flag and the Governor was non-responsive to that.
TSL: Here we are, three months into the year, and not only has the matter not been raised in the legislature, but in its place stands a newly-minted Confederate History Month. In the face of the American Southern governmental bodies shedding themselves of the bars and stars of a one-time insurrection, Mississippi stands firmly, stubbornly in the past.
AE: The hope was that when the state legislature convened in January there would be bills introduced to change the flag. About two weeks ago, there were at least ten bills introduced to change the flag and all of them died in committee. Perhaps killed would be a better word for it. They were all killed.
TSL: Do you believe that the fact that we’ve come as far as even having someone in leadership in the state of Mississippi discuss changing the flag in any matter is indicative of growth on the part of those in power?
AE: I don’t think so. What has happened in some instances is, because the state has refused to remove the flag, there have been cities and schools across the state who have brought the flag down on their own. The City of Magnolia brought the flag down on their own, the city of Oxford brought the flag down, the city of Hattiesburg brought the flag down. There have been cities and schools in Mississippi that have brought the flag down on their own.
TSL: So it would seem there are people in the state of Mississippi willing to do something about it but very few in leadership support the change.
AE: Part of that rash of bills being introduced were also bills that would have blocked state funding for cities and schools that chose not to fly the state flag. They all died in committee so there was never any real push to get something done. At least one of them should have been brought to the house floor for a vote and that didn’t happen. It was my suspicion that nothing would be done, I was hoping I was wrong, but that is what happened.
To compound that insult, the Governor released a statement on the Sons of the Confederacy website that he would make April Confederate History Month. That just shows you where the hearts of the leadership of the state of Mississippi are. There is a mentality in the state of Mississippi unlike any other place in this country.
It’s clear what needs to happen. We need to reframe this conversation from being a Mississippi conversation to it being a national one. It’s not a Mississippi problem. It’s an American problem. Here’s what is glaring. For example, like the Super Bowl. Before Lady Gaga got up to sing at halftime, “America the Beautiful” was being played and Marly Matlin signed the words. In several shots you can see the Confederate flag in the video.
TSL: What’s at stake here?
AE: We can no longer be complicit in Mississippi’s bad behavior. That’s what’s happening now. Because we ignore the flag of the KKK, the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia, the Mississippi State flag, whatever you want to call it, because we ignore it, it continues to fly. We have to decide whether we’re going to be its accomplice, which is what’s happening now.
Mississippi feels no embarrassment because to feel embarrassed you have to have some shame about it. That’s what South Carolina felt, they felt shame that this kid, right before he shot all those people at Emmanuel, he was in pictures waving the Confederate flag. There was shame attached to that. That does not exist in Mississippi.
TSL: What do you believe is the swiftest, most effective way to propel this issue forward in a positive manner?
AE: President Obama gave that glorious speech in South Carolina at the funerals for the victims of the Emmanuel AME shooting, but where is the action? Where’s the action? This is a glaring moment of hypocrisy. For the past few weeks we have been eviscerating Donald Trump because he did not standup and disavow (David Duke of) the KKK. He did not say ‘I disavow the KKK’.
What needs to be done is President Obama needs to take a bill before Congress outlawing that flag on federal property.
That is hard because there are political consequences to that. Everybody that is a political nominee, everybody that is running for reelection all over the state is going to have to answer to that and for that. That’s hard to do, but that’s the hard work that needs to happen.
We’re not just telling people to boycott Mississippi, it’s bigger than that! It’s not what we’re trying to get out of Mississippi, it’s about what we’re trying to get out of ourselves (as the people of Mississippi). Who are we? When that flag, and those logos, wave anywhere, we’re complicit.