Aunjanue Ellis Reacts to Mississippi Flag Retirement Amid Anti-Racism Protests: "I Burst Out Crying"

The actress, an Emmy nominee for her role in 'When They See Us,' hails from the state and has been working on removing the flag, which included the Confederate emblem, for years.
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Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves signed a bill June 30 to retire the state's use of the Confederate battle flag, becoming the last state to do so. The news came amid widespread racial-injustice protests as activists successfully lobbied to remove symbols of systemic racism from use as groups like NASCAR and the Marine Corps also retired the flag. Mississippi native Aunjanue Ellis, who was Emmy-nominated for Ava DuVernay's When They See Us, has been working on the issue for years.

“The party started on Saturday when the [Mississippi] House voted on a resolution in favor of removing the flag, and when that happened, I just burst out screaming and crying,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I was so loud that my neighbor put a note under my gate to ask if I was OK. I have never seen them a day in my life, but they were concerned for my welfare — that’s how loud I was — but they also said, ‘You are not alone, we are here for you.’”

The sight of seeing the flags immediately come down brought on joy and “all kinds of bad singing,” adds Ellis, who moved back to Mississippi a decade ago to care for a family member while continuing her acting career and has declined projects that filmed in the state. Ellis, who next stars in HBO's Lovecraft Country, says living there while seeing the flag was a constant reminder of “loving a place that doesn’t love you back.”

“Seeing that flag every day as I lived my normal life became insufferable and untenable. It spurred my activism.” She says it’s time for the United States to ban public displays of the flag, taking a cue from NASCAR and the Marine Corps. “The flag acts as an unspoken tool of segregation. If we are a country that has outlawed segregation then we shouldn’t have physical objects that act as its stead.” 

The state flag, first adopted in 1894, will be redesigned with residents taking the polls in November to cast their vote on the final look based on designs from a commission, one that Ellis says must reflect the state by having Black, queer, Native American, young and old residents. “I hope the commission looks like us and doesn’t have any segregationists on it.”

A version of this story first appeared in the July 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.