WASHINGTON – Nearly one year after a gunman killed nine people at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., reigniting a national debate over the Confederate flag, the emblem remains as divisive as ever.
On Tuesday, which was Flag Day in the U.S., activists gathered outside the U.S. Capitol to rally against the Confederate battle emblem's presence on the state flag of Mississippi.
Critics of the flag’s use in public spaces say it is connected to slavery and racial violence. Those who argue in support of the flag, including the organization Sons of Confederate Veterans, assert that the flag represents heritage rather than hate and that First Amendment protections on free speech should allow the flag to hang on federal property.
Dylann Roof, who is charged in the attack in Charleston on June 17, 2015, had posted images posing with a Confederate battle flag ahead of the incident.
Many of the demonstrators Tuesday had traveled 18 hours from Jackson, Miss., for the event.
“I’ve attended several rallies in Mississippi and our voices have been heard,” said 14-year-old Maisie Brown, who also read a speech to the crowd. “But they haven’t been heard on a big enough platform.”
The “Take It Down America” event was arranged in support of attorney Carlos Moore’s federal lawsuit against the state of Mississippi and its governor, Phil Bryant. Moore argues that the state flag incites racial violence and infringes upon the 14th Amendment’s protections for black residents. He believes the federal government should remove the flag based on its ability to strike down “badges and incidents of slavery” under the 13th Amendment.
Moore said his decision to move forth with the lawsuit was based upon the inaction of the Mississippi state government.
“There’s definitely not been enough progress,” he said. “There were 12 bills filed (to change the state flag) in our state Legislature during this session that started in January. All 12 bills died in committee. They did not even get a floor or House vote. That is unacceptable.”
Mississippi’s state flag is the last in the U.S. to directly feature the emblem. In February, which Moore pointed out is Black History Month, Bryant issued a proclamation declaring April as Confederate Heritage Month in the state. Clay Chandler, a spokesperson for the governor, previously called Moore’s lawsuit “frivolous.” Bryant’s office has not responded to USA TODAY’s request for comment.
“The governor of Mississippi, himself, appears to be a frivolous individual,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., who also spoke during the rally. “He obviously doesn’t understand that there are important constitutional questions connected to the 13th and 14th Amendments related to this lawsuit. The federal courts will ultimately decide this question, as so often they have had to in Mississippi and other states in the Deep South that continue to live in the past.”
“(Bryant) needs to read the 13th Amendment of the Constitution,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif, another speaker at the event.
Several people invoked the memories of those killed by racial violence in Mississippi, including civil rights activist Medgar Evers; civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner; and 14-year-old Emmett Till. The death of Till, in particular, carried special significance for some in the crowd.
“I’m the cousin of Emmett Till,” said Edelia Carthan, 37. “It was Phil Bryant’s uncle (Roy Bryant) that admitted to murdering Emmett Till. So I’m not surprised by the governor’s reaction to all this because of his family history. It is in his blood.”
The rally’s proximity to the one-year anniversary of the attack in Charleston weighed on the minds of the demonstrators. “That was something so brutal and so horrific,” Moore said. “Any person with a heart should have been touched to bring down all images of Confederacy across the country.”
In South Carolina, the Confederate flag was removed from the grounds of the State House on July 6, 2015, after the South Carolina House of Representatives and South Carolina Senate voted to have it removed. The flag had flown on the grounds since 1962 when Gov. Ernest Hollings had the flag erected in protest of desegregation.
The controversy caused many other states to take action to remove the flag. Texas and Virginia both began refusing to issue vanity license plates with the Confederate battle emblem. Florida had the flag removed from the seal of the state Senate. Retailers, such as Walmart and Amazon, also announced they would stop carrying the Confederate flag.
Earlier this week, the Washington National Cathedral announced that it would remove two Confederate flags from two stained glass windows in the cathedral.
The emblem continues to be displayed in a number of states. After featuring the battle emblem in its state flag from 1956 to 2001, Georgia has since adopted a design based upon the “Stars and Bars” of the First National Flag of the Confederacy. In Alabama, the official state coat of arms features the Confederate battle flag’s saltire.
Those who defend the flag often do so in the name of history or heritage. “To those 70 million of us whose ancestors fought for the South,” wrote Ben Jones, chief of heritage operations for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, in an op-ed for the New York Times in December 2015, “it is a symbol of family members who fought for what they thought was right in their time, and whose valor become legendary in military history.”
Moore expressed bewilderment at this argument. “The heritage is the brutal rapings, the murderings and the lynchings of my people, my ancestors?" he said. “What heritage is that to be proud of?”
Many of the rally participants noted the progress made since the attack in South Carolina, although Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., noted, “It is still a long way to go.” Huffman commended the advances, while conceding that change had not come fast enough.
“It was remarkable to see the unity in South Carolina after that event,” Huffman said. “It was inspirational in many ways, but obviously the message wasn’t received everywhere. That’s why we’ve got so many people from Mississippi here trying to finish the job.”
“We want the nation involved,” Carthan said. “This is not just a Mississippi problem. This is a national problem.”