It is finally time. The election is already underway, as across the country voters are casting their ballots to decide America’s leadership. It’s been a journey – readers of our previous columns have joined us as we traveled to the late 1800s, to the pivotal year of 1910, and then to the 1950s and ‘60s, all in an effort to understand the history of Hattiesburg’s Confederate monument.
In our final column, we wanted to adjust our lens to focus not on the past, but on the present – and most importantly, the future. On Nov. 3, voters will face a question on the ballot known as county-wide Ballot Measure #4. The question reads as follows: “Please vote yes or no on whether the Confederate monument should be moved to a more suitable location.” Back in July, we made our position clear: that given its historical origin in an era of racial disenfranchisement and as an act of perpetuating racial injustice, the Confederate monument has no place on the grounds of an American courthouse, and that both the monument itself and area residents as well are best served by its relocation to a more neutral setting.
Today, we’re here to make the case one final time. We’ll start, however, by responding to the most common objections to its relocation.
Argument #1: “This monument, and others like it, are symbols of heritage, not hate.” Without a doubt, this argument is offered in public debates more than any other. Unfortunately, it has multiple flaws. First: it constructs a faulty framework, suggesting a false binary that distorts the documented origin of the monument in question. We know that local folks have pride in their Confederate ancestry, a pride that is heartfelt and personal. But as we showed in our second article, according to the secessionists themselves, there is no ambiguity in Mississippi over why our state seceded – to preserve the institution of slavery – and this monument (like its kin) was erected to honor that effort. You can read its words, etched in stone, for yourself. Moreover, it was erected during a time when those same veterans who had lost the Civil War decided to wage it anew on legal grounds. Descendants of Confederates today may genuinely bear no ill-will towards African-Americans, but the same cannot be true of those who conceived of, financed, and built this monument.
A more accurate framing of this debate would focus not only on heritage or hate but instead citizenship. This monument reflects a period in American and Southern history when large numbers of its citizens were denied the right to vote. Why should we continue to honor a monument that expressly celebrates that?
Argument #2: “Removing this monument amounts to revising or erasing history.” If only it were that easy! There are several responses here. First, on a basic level, this is logically impossible, because in order to formulate any arguments that reassess Confederate symbolism, historians have had to research the primary sources that gave rise to Confederate ideology in the first place. Those sources – Mississippi’s Article of Secession, its 1890 Constitution, or the racist poison in the 1900s Hattiesburg Daily Progress – are not being rewritten. They speak for themselves. In order to develop our position, we have had to consult the original documents themselves – which is why we reprinted Stokes Robertson’s dedication speech two months ago, so you, today’s Mississippians, could see the language for yourselves.
We’re not rewriting history: we’re exposing it. This monument is evidence of history already being rewritten. The Lost Cause to which this monument is dedicated was an invention, an effort to portray 19th-century society in terms of the civilized white race and the savage black, of the antebellum period as the height of cultured progress and values. Any claim about what relocating Confederate monuments does “to history” only takes place in the context of the fact that these monuments were built to privilege one history – elite, white, Anglo history – over all others, first and foremost African-American history. Not to mention the fact that Hattiesburg and Forrest County were both formed after the Civil War.
In other words, when monument supporters claim that relocation constitutes an attack “on history,” we as historians – but really, as informed citizens – must respond: whose history? Not all histories have been equally told, particularly not those from the Jim Crow South – but the myth of the Lost Cause (and its modern incarnations) positions itself as the “true history,” a phrase that carries dangerous connotations, not least of self-righteousness and of dogmatic, insular thinking. We have a moral, professional, and civic obligation to stand against that.
Third, as for the flip side of that coin – that relocating the monument is erasing history? Monument supporters often put up a straw man to say that removal or relocation of monuments is tantamount to their destruction. To be blunt: we have never, not ever, taken that position, for the simple reason that destroying these monuments would prevent us from doing our job – and we have no interest in putting ourselves out of business. Job markets are tight enough as it is! No, to the contrary, we are arguing for its preservation, so that we can continue to learn from it: just not from a place of honor.
Argument #3: “It’s not hurting anyone.” To paraphrase Pope Francis, who are you to say? Do supporters of this claim have a window onto the psyche of human souls, to see those inner struggles the rest of us can’t? Not only is this claim deeply unsympathetic to the history of racial suffering, which is worrying enough, but it’s also historically untrue. Why else would the marchers on Freedom Day encircle this courthouse, this monument, as they sought their right to vote? Every Black or minority citizen who walks past this monument has to be reminded of a time when their ancestors were not citizens, when they were deemed to be second-class citizens, unworthy of participation in civic life and when white men and women waged a bloody war to preserve them not as fellow souls made in the image of God but as property. How can Americans today tolerate a shrine to such thinking in their midst? And how can anyone truly say – out of knowledge, not out of emotion or of ignorance – that such a monument causes no continued harm? And what does it say to Black kids today, for us to restate that we value the Confederacy more than we do them? Lastly, if it’s fair to ask who the monument hurts, then it’s also appropriate to ask: who does the monument really help? How does it benefit our society?
The other arguments against its relocation – namely, that it would be too expensive or too difficult – are further straw men. With the right political will, we’ve seen cities across the South remove their statuary safely, and there is no reason why Hattiesburg can’t do so as well. We know not every logistical question is worked out as we write this, but frankly, they don’t all have to be: first, let us make the right decision now. After that, we are confident that together with our elected officials, the people of Forrest County can find an amenable solution.
For finally, it is this last argument that takes us from the present day into a place we haven’t yet traveled: the future. Hattiesburg’s civic landscape belongs as much to our children and our grandchildren as it does to us – in some ways, more so – and this opportunity to promote racial healing may not arise again for many years. Look down the road for a moment, and imagine a young person of color, a Hattiesburg native born and raised, a recent graduate of her wonderful schools, walking down Main Street years from now. A young Black woman, say, getting ready to cast her very first ballot. Ask yourself: were she to ask you why that monument is still standing, how would you answer? How would you defend your decision to keep a reminder of second-class citizenship on the courthouse grounds? Why would anyone privilege an invented, hurtful past over the hope and promise of the present day – and of the future? There is no credible answer.
People of Forrest County, as you cast your ballots, we urge you to
send a clear message to the Board
of Supervisors, and vote yes,
the monument should be moved
to a more suitable location.
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).