The dedication of Hattiesburg’s Confederate monument in 1910, which we detailed last month, capped the most violent decade in the history of the city. To give but a few examples: in June of 1902, a 300-person mob gathered outside the city jail to take custody of a Black man wrongly accused of rape. “If found,” the Hattiesburg Daily Progress predicted of the hunt that day, “he will very likely be lynched.” This Black man, who was later proven innocent by the confession of another individual, was spared by the arrival of the state militia.
A year later, 500 local white citizens would not be stopped at the jailhouse door. Armed with “crowbars, axes, picks, and sledgehammers,” the New York Times reported, this mob stormed into a jail cell to abduct a prisoner named Amos Jones who was accused of murder. The mob tied a noose around Jones and pulled him by the neck to a bridge over Gordon’s Creek, where they strung his body up a telegraph pole and “emptied their revolvers into it.”
Two years after that, in 1905, a 1,000-person white mob used a makeshift battering ram to break into the city jail and remove two Black prisoners named Kid George and Ed Lewis. George had been accused of shooting a white police officer, and Lewis was accused of harboring George. Someone in the mob suggested that they burn the men alive, but others decided on a more traditional lynching. The men were brought to a local bridge and pushed off the side before some in the crowd “proceeded to riddle their bodies with bullets,” noted a local reporter.
The Laurel Ledger cast aspersions on the growing violence filling the city streets of its southern neighbor. “Hattiesburg has quite an unsavory reputation for lawlessness of this particular character, this being about the sixth lynching to her credit,” the Ledger observed. “Hattiesburg has not only brought shame on herself, but on the whole state by allowing these lynchings to take place.”
This violent era between 1900 and 1910 coincided with a sharp rise of extreme anti-Black sentiment across Mississippi and in Hattiesburg. The Hub City was growing, attracting thousands of new residents who wanted to tap into the opportunities provided by Mississippi’s most promising New South city. Many of these white settlers also sought the protection of a racial order that would clearly demark place and privilege on either side of the color line.
These citizens consumed a racist newspaper that insisted, “The negro can never be anything more than a laborer, and as such he is becoming worthless, unfit and unreliable,” as the Hattiesburg Daily Progress wrote in 1902. “The Progress sees but one solution,” the paper continued, “send them all to Illinois or Indiana and let the northern mobs kill them.” They also consumed plays like “The Clansman” that came to town in 1905. The basis of the later film “Birth of a Nation,” “The Clansman” depicted a heroic Ku Klux Klan charging through the South to save white citizens from newly emancipated African Americans. A local reviewer called the play “a triumphal answer to the negrophiles, the negro-lovers, the advocates of either social or political equality.”
And at the end of the decade, as the city searched for ways to convey its values, local white citizens erected their Confederate monument. Remember: Hattiesburg itself was founded nearly 20 years after the end of the Civil War. But it was nonetheless the Confederacy to which these local citizens turned as they sought to build a commemorative landscape in their Jim Crow town.
Recounting this list of violent events and attitudes makes for uncomfortable reading, but at the beginning of this series we never promised comfort. We promised honesty and transparency. Whether we like it or not, here in Hattiesburg this history is our history, and acknowledging it is the first step towards healing it. Consequently, if context is key to understanding Hattiesburg’s Confederate monument when it was first built, then it is also key to understanding it through time, namely, from 1910 through the 20th century, up to the debates of the present day.
The myth of the Lost Cause was firmly established in the minds of many white Southerners by the dawn of the 20th century, and wrapped in the arms of Jim Crow it would survive intact for decades following. We have no record of how early Black citizens felt about the monument. But imagine their reaction in the wake of the violence: for decades, the monument would remain next to the courthouse, casting a shadow not just over Main Street and the courthouse steps, but over their efforts to organize, to stand up for their constitutional rights to vote.
Which brings us to the 1950s and 1960s, when the Civil Rights movement awoke in the South, and renewed calls for justice and equality began to challenge the dominant narrative of racial hierarchies. We’re not here to rehearse that history of injustice and continued violence – we trust Mississippians know the names Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, among others, and we trust Hattiesburgers know the names Clyde Kennard and Vernon Dahmer.
Because the birth years of the Confederate monument were soaked through with violence, we want to point out that its middle age was riddled with the same. Despite what some may believe, there are many more forms of violence than physical trauma. The list includes economic violence, such as boycotts and strikes; psychological violence, such as intimidation, insult, or undermining; and political violence, such as disenfranchisement or the removal of rights.
As we mentioned last month, the placement of the Confederate monument on the Forrest County Courthouse grounds – like the dozens of others erected across the South – linked the two entities not just physically but ideologically. The laws of the racist Constitution of 1890 enforced in that courthouse were written and passed by the men who had fought in that monument’s failed war. It is absolutely no surprise, then, that when civil rights activists began to organize here in the Hub City, the courthouse and the monument, symbols of injustice for decades, were their primary targets. Where else would they realistically march?
Two photographs tell that story better than we can. Item #40 of the Winfred Moncrief Collection at MDAH shows a long line of protesters marching around the monument and the courthouse grounds, on Freedom Day, January 22, 1964. The monument rises like a lightning rod in Moncrief’s composition, drawing the eye to the grey soldier atop its column, facing an army unlike any it had ever seen. Led that day by Fannie Lou Hamer – seen wearing the placard and hat, just at the base of the monument – among others, that army would not rest until the laws preventing Blacks from voting were torn down.
In the same archive of Moncrief’s photographs, item #67 shows a crowd of activists gathered directly across the street. As this own newspaper reported back in July upon his passing, the image shows none other than a young John Lewis of Alabama (later Congressman John Lewis of Georgia) here in Hattiesburg, encouraging prospective voters and, like the other leaders, watching for any signs of violence. That violence would shortly arrive – for Lewis, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in March 1965, and for the Dahmer family, in January 1966.
Freedom Day would serve as the catalyst for Hattiesburg’s famous Freedom Summer that year, which featured Freedom Schools, voter registration, and civic education over a period of months. Though Hamer, Lewis, and this new army would not succeed in toppling the monument, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act in 1965, the symbolic walls of the courthouse that had barred its own citizens from entry and from full participation had finally come tumbling down, like a modern American Jericho.
Perhaps because of that victory, the monument would recede from view, barely cropping up in the historical record of the late 20th century until the events of the last few years returned it and many monuments like it to the forefront of American public life. The systemic violence against Blacks – against Amos Jones, against Kid George and against Ed Lewis – which many Americans would like to believe is merely historical, has once again drawn our attention to the relics of Jim Crow and the meanings of these hunks of granite that dot the Southern landscape.
Such violence comes to pass only in a community or culture that sanctions it. Never an inert hunk of granite, Hattiesburg’s Confederate monument – like every other of its kind built in the South – continued to do symbolic work through time, from the day it was built. Though that work may have been subtle, even secretive at times, its perpetrators trying to hide behind white hoods, modern events have exposed that work in ways that democratic citizens can now no longer ignore.
In our fourth and final column, mere days before the ballot in November, we’ll examine the main contemporary positions in the debate, and present our final arguments as to why it’s time for the monument to go.
Thanks, as always, for reading, and grappling with us together as we confront these difficult aspects of our past.
Dr. Benjamin Morris is the author of “Hattiesburg, Mississippi: A History of the Hub City” (The History Press, 2014). Professor William Sturkey is associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of “Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White” (Harvard University Press, 2019). This column is Part III of a monthly series. Read Part I: http://bit.ly/pbnm1. Read Part II: http://bit.ly/pbnm2.