Emmett Till’s Cousin on Why Mississippi’s Flag Is Still Racist

Edelia “Dr. Jay” Carthan is at the forefront of a movement to remove the Confederate “stars and bars.”

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank December 8, 2017

(Photo courtesy I.Am.Sham. Photography)

Edelia Dr. Jay” Carthan, a native of Mis­sis­sip­pi and an assis­tant pro­fes­sor at Touga­loo Col­lege, is at the fore­front of the move­ment to remove the Con­fed­er­ate emblem of a cross and stars from the state’s flag (the last in the coun­try to bear it).

"You can't be proud of both civil-rights and slavery."

The group she cofound­ed, Take It Down Amer­i­ca, has held demon­stra­tions across the South and at the U.S. Capi­tol. The group’s next planned action was at the open­ing of the Mis­sis­sip­pi Civ­il Rights Muse­um in Jack­son on Decem­ber 9, but those ini­tial plans changed when Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump announced he would attend the museum’s opening. 

What ini­tial action did you have planned at the open­ing of the Civ­il Rights Muse­um this weekend?

We didn’t want to protest the muse­um but we did want our voic­es to be heard. The state flag still car­ries the Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle emblem, it’s a direct con­tra­dic­tion to every­thing that’s in that muse­um. So how are you going to remem­ber this his­to­ry, but at the same time, keep wav­ing this flag that rep­re­sents slavery?

Now that Pres­i­dent Trump is attend­ing, what has changed? 

Now, it’s gone from a demon­stra­tion to a boy­cott. There is noth­ing that Pres­i­dent Trump, Gov­er­nor [Phil] Bryant or for­mer Gov­er­nor [Haley] Bar­bour have done to improve civ­il rights in Mis­sis­sip­pi. Being at the open­ing is just a pho­to op for them to look like nice, good white people.

They’re mak­ing mon­ey off of our hurt and pain and not doing any­thing to cor­rect, help or rec­og­nize what slav­ery did to an entire race of peo­ple. It’s con­tra­dic­to­ry in itself, them being at the muse­um open­ing, espe­cial­ly while the state flag still has the Con­fed­er­ate flag on it. You can’t be proud of both civ­il-rights and slavery.

Why did you get involved in this fight?

I grew up in Tchu­la, a small Delta town. Emmett Till was my cousin. My father was the first black may­or of Tchu­la since Recon­struc­tion. He refused to be their boy and run the city how the white pow­er struc­ture want­ed him to, and he spent much of his admin­is­tra­tion behind bars because of false charges relat­ed to the mur­der of a polit­i­cal rival.

He was fac­ing the death penal­ty. Peo­ple around the world got involved because they knew he was inno­cent. I went to court and marched on my father’s behalf.

He was even­tu­al­ly acquit­ted of the mur­der charge. If Mis­sis­sip­pi wants to move for­ward and heal, we have to be hon­est about what that flag means and stop say­ing it rep­re­sents her­itage.”

What does the cross and stars mean to you? 

It’s a her­itage of hate. The Con­fed­er­a­cy fought against inte­gra­tion and to keep the insti­tu­tion of slav­ery so that my group of peo­ple, African Amer­i­cans, wouldn’t be free. We would not have the same rights. We would not even be U.S. cit­i­zens. I think that the flag should come down and this should­n’t even be an issue that we’re dis­cussing in 2017.

What mem­o­ries of your father stick with you?

One is when he deliv­ered his own clos­ing argu­ment. He was in law school when peo­ple asked him to run for may­or. As a girl, I heard him ask­ing offi­cials to be who they said they were on paper: for free­dom and lib­er­ty for all. Today, 40 years lat­er, my father is in office. He’s a super­vi­sor in Holmes County.

The mem­o­ries of see­ing him fight for his life with his words res­onate with me. I use my voice to fight for oth­ers to make sure what hap­pened to my father nev­er hap­pens to any­one else.

What actions have you tak­en to get Con­fed­er­ate flags removed?

It’s not just a Mis­sis­sip­pi prob­lem. It’s a nation­al prob­lem. Local­ly, we’ve had march­es in Jack­son and sent infor­ma­tion to schools let­ting them know they have the right to take the flag down. It’s Mis­sis­sip­pi law that schools fly the flag. One of the main prob­lems I’ve found with my research is many peo­ple don’t know what the flag actu­al­ly means. So they’re not offend­ed by it. We want to edu­cate people.

What do you say to peo­ple who argue the flag is impor­tant because of its history?

Put it in a muse­um. The offi­cial state flag should rep­re­sent all res­i­dents of the state. It cer­tain­ly does­n’t rep­re­sent me and my his­to­ry and my fam­i­ly. I don’t see any hos­pi­tal­i­ty in that flag — I see hos­til­i­ty, hate and separation.

Do oth­er strug­gles to remove sym­bols of the Con­fed­er­a­cy around the coun­try give you hope for Mississippi? 

Yes. It’s been about three years since we start­ed this jour­ney and I’ve seen things change. That’s what real­ly gives me hope. From the first press con­fer­ence that I took part in, all of the schools had their flags up. I’ve seen Mis­sis­sip­pi State, Delta State and oth­er schools, one by one all, have their flags tak­en down.

This in an expand­ed and updat­ed ver­sion of an inter­view that appeared in print.

Han­nah Steinkopf-Frank is a Chica­go-based free­lance writer and pho­tog­ra­ph­er. Her work has appeared in the Chica­go Tri­bune, Atlas Obscu­ra, Bitch Media, the Colum­bia Jour­nal­ism Review, JSTOR Dai­ly and Paper Mag­a­zine, among others.
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