“I think it well, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”
— Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in a letter to the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, 1869
“A great nation does not hide its history: it faces its flaws and corrects them.”
— President George W. Bush at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Sept. 24, 2016
Like the war it symbolizes, the debate surrounding the Confederate monument has two sides.
To bring the memorial down — moving it off the Leflore County courthouse lawn — or to leave it up? What is the right thing to do?
The Confederate monument was erected by the Varina Jefferson Davis Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy on Oct. 9, 1913.
Located on the lawn of the courthouse, which is situated on a former meeting place of the Choctaw tribe, the monument reflects several aspects of the Confederate States of America.
On it, there are two Confederate women, one of whom is tending to a wounded soldier; two Confederate soldiers (one from the artillery and one from the cavalry) in full regalia; and a replica of the wheel from the Star of the West, the ship that was stationed at Fort Sumter at the start of the war.
A 1961 Greenwood Commonwealth article boasts about the monument, saying that “Nowhere in the South is there a more complete and impressive testimony to the Southern cause. There are monuments larger and more costly, but none that tell the story of valor and sacrifices in a more complete and beautiful way.”
At the top of the monolith stands Mississippi governor and Civil War general Benjamin G. Humphreys.
Humphreys, a member of the Whig party before the Civil War, opposed secession; however, after the war began, he organized the Sunflower Guards and was soon elected colonel of a Mississippi regiment.
After the war and while in office, Humphreys was a staunch opponent of empowering recently freed slaves: “The Negro is free, whether we like it or not; we must realize that fact now and forever. To be free, however, does not make him a citizen, or entitle him to political or social equality with the white race.”
On the day of the monument’s unveiling, Mrs. T.M. Whetstone, president of the UDC chapter, spoke to the crowd, which the Commonwealth described as one of the largest the city had ever seen.
“... I do in its name,” said Whetstone, “pledge that this magnificent testimony standing here as a beacon on the shores of time, expressing to this and future generations the love and esteem of the people of Leflore County for the Confederate soldier and the Confederate women, shall be faithfully protected and guarded until each of us shall have answered to the long last roll call and ‘passed over the river to rest under the shade trees.’ Then will the sons of Confederate veterans keep vigil while we sleep the sleep that knows no waking.”
The speech was published in full in a December 1913 issue of the Confederate Veteran magazine.
Legality of its Removal
On June 22, the Leflore County Board of Supervisors voted 4-0 to remove the statue pending the selection of a “more suitable location.”
District 1 Supervisor Sam Abraham was not present at the meeting but has since said he would have voted against the monument’s removal.
State law says, “The governing body may move the memorial to a more suitable location if it is determined that the location is more appropriate to displaying the monument.”
According to Board Attorney Joyce Chiles, the cost of the removal will be paid from county funds if no group donates money for its removal. The board does not know yet how much the work will cost.
Chiles also said that through her research, she found no evidence that the land where the monument sits belongs to anyone else but Leflore County, and therefore the board has the right to remove it.
Reginald Moore, vice president of the board, said the Mississippi Department of Archives and History will help guide the supervisors on the cost and relocation of the statue. This is in agreement with the Office of the Attorney General’s guidelines.
“We also point out that any alteration of the monument in question requires authorization by the Board of Trustees of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History pursuant to the Mississippi Antiquities Law,” the guidelines say.
The Museum of the Mississippi Delta has said it will not accept the statue based on the controversy it carries with it as well as the sheer size of the structure.
Other locations that have been suggested by community members include Fort Pemberton Memorial Park in Greenwood, Vicksburg National Military Park and the Museum of Mississippi History in Jackson.
Fort Pemberton, located at the western intersection of U.S. 49 and U.S. 82, was the site of a Civil War battle, and it also is where Confederates sank the Star of the West steamship in the Tallahatchie River to block the Union’s advance down river to Vicksburg.
In the article “A Brief Historical Contextualization of the Confederate Monument at the University of Mississippi,” published by the University of Mississippi and authored by John Neff, Jarod Roll and Anne Twitty, they write that several factors emerge from the process of erecting and maintaining statues, citing the recently relocated Confederate statue at the university.
These factors include:
• Celebration of the heroism of Confederate soldiers and identifying “Confederate defeat as the product of Union advantages in manpower and materials rather than their martial superiority.”
• “It declared that states’ rights — rather than the preservation of slavery, which they insisted was a benevolent institution in any case — had been the noble principle upon which the Confederacy was based.”
• Proclaims Reconstruction as a failed test in racial equality.
• “It asserted that southern whites possessed a unique identity that gave the Confederacy enduring cultural power despite its defeat.”
As with the statue at the University of Mississippi, the monument in Leflore County was placed at a time when gains made by former slaves during Reconstruction were being rolled back by a restored white dominance.
In that same study about the University of Mississippi statue, the researchers state:
“This monument is one of hundreds placed in spaces of symbolic power throughout the former Confederacy during the 1890s and 1900s, the timing of which was not arbitrary. ... Marking important public space with symbols that extolled white southern nationalism effectively asserted control over all of the public who had access to that space. These elite white southerners, of course, were ever mindful of race as they worked to disenfranchise African Americans, establish Jim Crow restrictions in law, and lynch black men and women with grim enthusiasm. The people who dedicated our monument themselves clearly and contemporaneously articulated the connection between Lost Cause ideology and Jim Crow-era white supremacy.”
In contrast to this is Ellen Hunt’s article, “What Is a Confederate Monument? An Examination of Confederate Monuments in the Context of the Compelled Speech and Government Speech Doctrines,” published in a University of Minnesota Law School journal. It cites heritage as a common reason cited for keeping the monuments.
“Others argue that Confederate monuments should be honored, or at least respected, as articles of history,” Hunt writes. “They believe that because these monuments are long-standing they should remain in place. Monument defenders do not believe the monuments promote White supremacy; instead, they argue that the monuments serve as historically appropriate memorials erected by survivors. They further argue the monuments honor soldiers who ‘were willing to sacrifice and die to defend their values,’ which they believe is a noble cause regardless of what those values were. Monument defenders argue those soldiers ‘truly believed freedom and democracy were at stake, and they truly believed they had chosen the right side.’ For people whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy, the attack against the monuments feels personal.”
In Charles Bracelen Flood’s biography “Lee: The Last Years,” he wrote about an exchange between the Confederate general and a woman from Kentucky whose home had been affected by the violence of the Civil War. The discussion shows Lee’s position on the remembrance of the war and what it meant to him.
“Lee knew that the war was over and that everything depended on a new attitude for a new day,” writes Flood. “He was taken to call on a lady who lived north of Lexington, and she promptly showed him the remains of a tree in her yard. All its limbs had been shot off by Federal artillery fire during Hunter’s raid, and its trunk torn by cannonballs. The woman looked at him expectantly as she showed him this memento of what she and her property had endured. Here was a man who would sympathize.
“Lee finally spoke. ‘Cut it down, my dear Madam, and forget it.’”
Statistics Concerning the Removal of Confederate Statues
In research conducted by the team at BeenVerified.com, the Leflore courthouse’s monument is just one of Mississippi’s 142 remaining Confederate symbols.
Currently, Mississippi is tied with West Virginia for the third-largest percentage of remaining symbols, falling behind South Carolina, which is first, and then Arkansas.
In June, Quinnipiac University in Connecticut reported that nationwide, “voters support 52-44% removing Confederate statues from public spaces around the country.”
Voices in the community have been divided for some time on this issue.
While some see the monument as a symbol of oppression, others see it as a symbol of Southern pride.
“It represents something as a white person I will never be able to understand. I see the hurt and pain that (the monument) can cause. I took my shoes off and stepped into theirs for a moment, metaphorically speaking. So, yes, I am OK with the removal of that monument,” said Samantha Beach of Greenwood.
“If there was a monument or painting that was set as a centerpiece in my community that hurt me or my family, that reminded me of a time that was harsh and unrelenting, then I would want it removed,” she said.
“There is a progressive problem with white people thinking they will understand what the Black community has endured. They have never had to fear their kids playing in their yard. They didn’t have to teach their little boys that when they grow up to fear others and to be unnoticeable so they weren't suspicious of them. It’s a hard pill to swallow that your opinion might not matter, but the Black community suffers that so much. It’s a statue, a rock, and just not worth me hurting another human being over.”
“I’m so glad they are taking it down,” said Renee Johnson of Indianapolis, who has born in Greenwood and often visits her hometown.
“Growing up in Greenwood, I always hated that monument, but I never understood why,” said Johnson, who is Black. “The more I read history books and reached the history of Mississippi, the Confederate, slavery, the Civil War only made me dislike the monument even more. That monument belongs in a museum.”
Among those in Leflore County who oppose the monument’s removal is Baird Moor.
“I’m truly sorry if it offends anyone, which I don’t think it should,” said Moor, who is white. “I don’t think it should be moved. The biggest reason is, if you look at the documentation given by the Daughters of the Confederacy, it was given to the Board of Supervisors and the people of Leflore County. And for the Board of Supervisors to make the decision without the people of Leflore County, I think it’s not a good call.
“Now, the people might vote to move it — I don’t doubt that they would vote to move it, but I’m sorry they feel the way they feel.”
Larry McCluney, an author and longtime history teacher, who is white, spoke to the Board of Supervisors on July 6. McCluney said that Mississippi was the first to give pensions to Black Confederate soldiers and that the monument acts as a headstone to all those families whose ancestors lost their lives during the war and never had a proper burial.
McCluney said taking down this monument would be like “going out into the cemetery taking a sledgehammer and knocking down the headstones of your parents, your grandparents or one of your ancestors.”
Requests for comment were made to the United Daughters of the Confederacy through phone, email and a handwritten letter. No one responded.
•Contact Adam Bakst at 581-7233 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @AdamBakst_GWCW