Can you believe it? Election Day in America will be here — finally — in only a matter of days.
Is it just me though, or does it seem the 2020 campaign has been going on for like, what, four years? Well, in a way, it has. As usual, here in the good-old USA, as soon as one presidential election is over, the next one begins.
For us locals, Nov. 3 is not only about voting for president. Here in the Pine Belt, besides a U.S. Senate election, we have other statewide and local issues to decide.
In Forrest County, it’s the question of the monument paying tribute the Confederate States of America, which stands on the county courthouse campus. Dedicated in 1910, the monument honors the men and women who served the Confederacy. The question on the ballot this Tuesday is whether the monument stays, or is it relocated to a less prominent location?
Standing guard at the courthouse for over a century, have you ever wondered why the monument is there in the first place?
It's worth noting, by Mississippi standards, Hattiesburg is a fairly young city. Founded in 1882, two decades after the last bullets were fired in the Civil War, Hattiesburg played no role in the War Between the States. In the 1860s, what we now know as the Pine Belt was populated by Choctaw Native Americans and, probably, a handful of settlers scattered among south Mississippi's towering pine forests. And yet, even though Hattiesburg played no role in the war, the Hub City, like many larger Southern cities, felt compelled to honor the Confederacy.
I've been walking or driving past that monument all of my life and, until my adult years, gave it little thought. I counted it as simply part of the way things were for this black kid growing up in a segregated Hattiesburg. Back then, black moviegoers had to sit in the balcony at the Saenger Theater. We were not allowed to sit and eat at the lunch counter at Woolworth's downtown. The way things were.
A pair of historians have written books about our city's history: Benjamin Morris, author of "Hattiesburg, Mississippi: A History of the Hub City" and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor William Sturkey, author of "Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White."
Over the past few weeks, here on the pages of The Pine Belt News, Morris and Sturkey have chronicled some of Hattiesburg's history, before and leading up to placement of the monument. The authors opened my eyes to a number of heinous criminal actions that took place in my hometown, a history I was not familiar with. Those unthinkably evil deeds, carried out against Black residents by white men and women, were committed in the name of "justice." One story in particular makes me shudder.
A mob of white vigilantes dragged a Black man accused of murder, Amos Jones, from the Forrest County Jail. The mob, having appointed themselves judge and jury, tied a rope around Jones' neck, pulled him down a downtown street to Gordon's Creek where he was strung to a telephone pole. Not done, the mob then emptied their revolvers into his body. This is just one of the stories (among many) I learned about my hometown, the city I love.
Even the Laurel Ledger newspaper, in our Jones County sister city, criticized the mob violence going on in Hattiesburg. The newspaper observed, "Hattiesburg has not only brought shame on herself, but on the whole state by allowing these lynchings to take place." That's really saying something, considering those words came from a newspaper in Mississippi, more than 100 years ago.
With that history under its wing, in 1910 Hattiesburg and Forest County erected its monument to the Confederacy. Like those across the South, these works of art served dual purposes. They were placed not only to honor "heroes" of the Confederacy but, equally important, were a reminder to African Americans of their lowly place in Southern society.
The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier this year brought the statues, along with the message they sent, under renewed public scrutiny. During nationwide protests, mobs defaced and destroyed many of these monuments to Southern "heritage."
I've admitted, I did not agree with the methods protesters used to register their anger. Whether or not you approve of them, the monuments are public property. There is a right way and a wrong way to express your disapproval.
Still, considering the modern age in which we live, these monuments, and the message they send, deserve a second look, including the one that stands at the Forrest County Courthouse. Thankfully, that statue has not been damaged or defaced. But there were peaceful protests in Hattiesburg calling for its removal.
A majority of the Forrest County Board of Supervisors would not vote to remove and relocate the monument. Instead, they chose the typical politician's cowardly way out, putting the issue up to a vote. "Let the people decide." (Always sounds good on paper, right?)
And, with that, the voters of Forrest County will decide on Election Day the future of the monument. As a resident of Hattiesburg living in the Lamar County section of our city, I will not be allowed to vote on the monument. Still, my personal prediction? After votes are counted, the statue will remain. We will see.
On the state level, Mississippians will vote to select a new state flag. I was proud when, earlier this year, state legislators voted to, at last, send Mississippi's former state flag to the museum where it belongs. For nearly a century, and decades after the Civil War, Mississippi was the last of the 50 states to feature, prominently no less, a battle flag of the Confederacy as part of its official state flag. Since it has been regulated to history, as of today, Mississippi has no official state flag. Now it is up to us, the voters.
On Nov. 3, we will vote for approval of the new design, known as the "In God We Trust" flag. I imagine including the words "In God we trust" was an insurance policy, making it easier to persuade conservative legislators to vote for removal of the old flag in favor of a new design. In Mississippi, how could they refuse a flag that included the words, "In God we trust"?
It should be observed, the new flag disregards those Mississippians who may not count themselves among the religious faithful. As a point of fact, Mississippi is the most religious state in the nation. The vast majority of us, myself included, are members of the Christian faith.
Still, I respect those people who think differently than me. As fellow Americans, it is their right to worship or, for that matter, choice not to worship a higher power. With that said, no doubt, I will be voting for the "In God We Trust" flag, as it represents a new day for Mississippi.
Then there's the medical marijuana thing, Initiative 65. Or is it Initiative 65A? (Talk about a convoluted mess.) More than 228,000 Mississippians signed a petition to make medical marijuana legal in the state. If approved, Mississippi would join 33 other states allowing the use of marijuana for medical purposes. The active ingredient in marijuana, THC, has been shown to help relieve pain for those patients suffering from a number of debilitating diseases. (Seems kind of hard to be in opposition to that one.) But, oh, how to vote?
Some argue Initiative 65 is too loosely worded, and would go beyond medicinal use of marijuana, opening the door for legalized recreational use of marijuana, already approved in a number of states.
But, hold the phone. Here comes Initiative 65A, created by the Mississippi Legislature, as an alternative to Initiative 65. (Oh, brother.) Get politicians involved in an issue as sensitive as this one and, immediately, the red flag goes up for me. Was this simply a deliberate attempt to confuse the issue?
Want more info on the subject before casting a vote? Use this web address, https://tinyurl.com/y68jugfa, to go to Ballotpedia for a breakdown of both initiatives.
Now, on to the main event.
In just a few days, we'll be voting on our choice for president of the United States. Who will lead us for the next four years? Funny though, "United" States? None of us have to be reminded that, lately, our country feels anything but "united." Policy issues are one thing and, of course, are always open to debate, as they should be. But what this country needs right now, more than anything, is a healer.
America feels broken. We need a president who possesses that most human of qualities — empathy. We need a president capable of bringing us together. We have morphed into a nation of social and political tribes, accomplishing nothing as we fight each other over who is right.
As I've discovered on Facebook (and elsewhere) expressing my views on the upcoming presidential election has become a political third rail all by itself.
I lived through the most tumultuous days of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Granted, I was a lot younger and, as a black child, did not appreciate how broken were the times I lived in. Looking back, while keeping an eye on today, I'm feeling the times we live in now are every bit as divided and every bit as dangerous.
My goal here is not to persuade you who to vote for. What a waste of time that would be. Most of us have already made up our minds and, in fact, many of us have already voted. Being an old-fashioned kinda guy, I'll be going to the polls to vote in person on Nov. 3. I hope every registered American joins me in voting. And, most important of all, that every single vote cast is counted. Truth be told, voting is the easy part. Afterwards, with a winner declared, as we Americans attempt to move forward into this decade, is when the real challenge begins.
With that said, I can think of no better way to end, than with these four most important words: In God we trust.