WASHINGTON (AP) — Protesters gathered Tuesday at the U.S. Capitol called the Confederate battle emblem on the Mississippi flag a vestige of slavery and urged Congress to erase it.
"This is a stain on all of us," said Aunjanue Ellis, an actress who lives in Pike County, Mississippi, where she grew up. One of the stars of the ABC series "Quantico" and the 2011 movie "The Help," Ellis said the Mississippi flag is a national issue because Americans shouldn't spend tax dollars on a symbol tied to slavery and the Ku Klux Klan.
"This is a problem that is a stain on the United States of America," Ellis said.
House Republican leaders last week blocked Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi from trying to ban Confederate symbols from the House side of the Capitol.
Thompson, the only black member of Mississippi's congressional delegation, told the crowd that the Confederate emblem was an antique that needed to be taken down.
"A symbol that speaks to defiance of federal government, a symbol that speaks to the fact that enslaving an individual in this country is all right, should never have a place other than in a museum somewhere," he said.
Nearly 38 percent of Mississippi residents are black, the highest percentage of any state. It is the only state with a flag that still includes the Confederate battle emblem. The symbol has been there since 1894, and voters chose to keep it in 2001. Supporters of the flag, including Sons of Confederate Veterans, say it represents their heritage.
Confederate images have come under fresh scrutiny since last year's massacre of nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The white man awaiting trial in the slayings had previously posed with the Confederate battle flag in photos posted online.
Weeks after the June 17, 2015, mass shooting, South Carolina lawmakers removed a Confederate battle flag that had flown for generations on the Statehouse grounds in Columbia. The University of Mississippi, the University of Southern Mississippi and several local governments stopped flying the state flag in the past year. For the past several months, Ellis has protested the state flag with dresses at red carpet events, including a white ball gown with a red handprint and the slogan, "Take It Down, Mississippi."
The Republican speaker of the Mississippi House and both of the state's Republican U.S. senators said soon after the Charleston slayings that Mississippi should replace its flag with a symbol that could unify people. However, during the state legislative session earlier this year, Speaker Philip Gunn said he couldn't get consensus in the Republican-majority House to consider bills to redesign the banner.
Carlos Moore, an African-American attorney from Grenada, Mississippi, filed a federal lawsuit in February making the argument that the flag is an unconstitutional vestige of slavery. U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves heard arguments in April but has not ruled in the case.
Moore said in an interview last week that he wants Congress to outlaw all Confederate symbols on public property, including flags, statues and monuments. He makes the same argument as in his lawsuit.
"With one fell swoop, Congress could solve this problem if they took it seriously," Moore said.
Genesis Be, a singer who grew up in Mississippi and lives in New York, said the rebel sign on the state flag sends a hostile message about a place that calls itself the hospitality state.
"I think having that flag up is very divisive," said Be, who also plans to protest Tuesday. During an April performance in New York, Be draped herself in a Confederate battle flag and put a noose around her neck to protest Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant's proclamation of April as Confederate Heritage Month.
Emily Wagster Pettus reported from Jackson, Mississippi. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .