Editor’s Note: Aunjanue Ellis is an Emmy-nominated actress and activist who lives in Mississippi. She recently starred in “When They See Us” and “The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel.” The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
Malcolm X was not pleased. The crowd was meager. Fannie Lou Hamer deserved better. She had stopped in Harlem to speak as his guest just months after her instrumental role in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s historic challenge to unseat Mississippi’s all-White, all-male delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
At the Harlem event, Mrs. Hamer described a life of terror in Sunflower County, saying: “For three hundred years we have given them time. And I’ve been tired so long, now I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Malcolm, convinced by her words and unbowed by the smattering crowd, spoke as if thousands would hear him: “What has Mississippi got to do with Harlem?… It’s America. America is Mississippi.” He continued, “If one room in your house is dirty, you’ve got a dirty house.”
Most of America has always treated my home state of Mississippi as the hidden “dirty” room, as the forgotten uncle with the disgraced past. The state has largely enjoyed the oblivion, creating an almost shadow government that celebrates Confederate holidays, enacting Confederate-inspired laws and policies that trample on voting rights and incarcerate Black children, and boldly flying the Confederate stars and bars on its official state flag. America’s leadership has allowed this to go unchecked without condemnation. But now that the grainy footage of Mississippi in 1964 looks like Minneapolis in 2020, the country can no longer ignore its bloody kinship with my state.
Newly elected Gov. Tate Reeves has done nothing, choosing the way of cowardice like his predecessor, former Gov. Phil Bryant. Things, however, are different now.
Mississippi has two beloved and viable economies: football and the Baptist church. The torture and killing of George Floyd has finally awakened the consciences of both of them. The NCAA and the Southeastern Conference (SEC), through which the state’s flagship schools – the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State – compete, are promising to deny Mississippi championships as long as the Confederate symbol flies over the state on our flag. (I believe they should go further and deny the state membership.) The heroic Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill has threatened to abandon playing for the school. And the Southern Baptist Convention – finally – has come out and said the flag must come down.
Despite Reeves’ initial recalcitrance and opposition to changing the flag through the state legislature, a bipartisan move to do just that is underway. A senior lawmaker has said the votes are there – and it seems inevitable that the flag will change. On Saturday, Reeves tweeted, “The argument over the 1894 flag has become as divisive as the flag itself and it’s time to end it. If they send me a bill this weekend, I will sign it.” But now new questions emerge: What flag will replace it? What will the flag’s removal mean for the state? What will it mean for this country?
Mississippi poet laureate Beth Ann Fennelly recently published an op-ed in support of what is known as the “Stennis Flag”; she described it as the flag to usher in a “new heritage” for the state. Its designer, artist Laurin Stennis, is the granddaughter of a rabid segregationist, the late Sen. John Stennis, a lineage Fennelly sees as “significant” because “white people must fix white people” – yet another privilege of Whiteness, I would argue.
In the early 1930s, Sen. Stennis prosecuted a case in which a Black man was strung up by a noose, taken down, then strung up again and beaten (along with two other Black men) until he gave the police their bespoke confession. After abundant pressure, Ms. Stennis has changed the name of the flag to “The Hospitality Flag” but she has not withdrawn her design, only her name. If this flag is hung, it will be forever shackled to the legacy of John Stennis. We cannot allow this. Furthermore, it is imperative that Black Mississippians be in the forefront of the flag’s next design.
Reeves previously said that he was “torn” and had been praying about the flag – as if he was waiting for God to tell him the right thing to do. From the time I was 3 until my grandmother was no longer able, I went to prayer meeting with her every Wednesday night. I listened with trembling while she and the mothers of our church prayed for the sick and prayed for me.
This makes me think about the man whose torture Sen. Stennis sanctioned to obtain a confession. I am certain he prayed a prayer of deliverance every time the noose was placed around his neck. The evidence is clear to me that there are two Gods in Mississippi. The God of the man whose neck is noosed and the God of the man who places the noose. It seems the right God – the just God – may have revealed himself to Reeves.
But for all the finger-pointing at Mississippi, there is a gaping hole in the logic here. There would be no Confederate flag in Mississippi or anywhere else in this country if it were banned nationwide. Congress must act now to ban the public display of that flag in the same way Germany banned the swastika after WWII. Organizations like PEN America and the ACLU – which have, even while defending civil rights, preserved the flag as a form of “free speech” – must acknowledge they have blood on their hands. The Confederate flag is not free speech. Black Americans have paid for it with our lives.
Even before Mrs. Hamer spoke with Malcom X on that historic day in Harlem, she had set a kerosene-soaked match to American exceptionalism with her remarks in New Jersey at the DNC. She told of the beating and sexual assault she had survived in a testimony so discomfiting to President Lyndon Johnson, he forced the networks to disrupt its transmission by delivering “impromptu” remarks.
Later that night, the networks aired Mrs. Hamer’s testimony in full, and with tears in her eyes and a choke in her voice, she looked through those cameras at President Johnson and the world and said: “I question America. Is this America? The land of the free and the home of the brave where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hook because our lives be threatened daily? Because we want to live as decent human beings in America?”
Mrs. Hamer did not say, “I question Mississippi.” She said, “I question America.” The Confederate flag and its attendant horrors – the massacres, torture and lynchings – loom through every state of this country.
Get our free weekly newsletter
And so I now pose Mrs. Hamer’s question to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: “Is this America?”
The nation awaits an answer.
This article has been updated to include Reeves’ tweet on Saturday expressing his willingness sign a bill to remove Confederate imagery from the state flag.