There I was, reading a biography of James Agee, prompted innocently enough, by my interest in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
This unconventional book was the product of his two-month sojourn with three white tenant farmer families in Hale County, Alabama, summer of 1936.
The tome was practically ignored when it appeared in 1941, only to be rediscovered and revered by the youth in the forefront of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
Agee died in 1955 and was buried in Hillsdale, NY, a small town in the Berkshire Hills close to the Massachusetts border.
Since I had once lived in western Massachusetts, not far East from there, out of curiosity, I looked up Hillsdale and found the town’s website.
I had been on their virtual tour only a few blocks, when to my surprise, there was a Civil War monument.
Common in small towns across the South, but in upstate New York? The monument presents two Union soldiers, one holding a flag, the other with his rifle. On the granite base is inscribed: “Erected by John K. Cullin in memory of the Soldiers and Sailors who defended our Country and Flag 1861-1865.”
It was erected in 1915 to mark 50 years since the end of the Civil War.
Meanwhile, 1300 miles to the southwest and five years earlier, 1910, Hattiesburg, Mississippi raised its own Civil War monument.
Erected on the County Court House lawn by the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, its inscription reads, in part, “C.S.A. To the men and women of the Confederacy 1861-1865 . . . They cheerfully gave their property and their lives. This monument is erected to the honor and memory of those who wore the gray.”
Three anonymous stone figures adorn the monument: one soldier is atop the monument, rifle in hand, and two figures stand at its base, a soldier and the figure of a young woman.
The Union monument depicts two soldiers, both in bronze, one anonymous and the other, Captain John Bingham Collin, the first of the Hillsdale citizens to enlist on September 18, 1861 in the 91st New York Volunteer Infantry. Hillsdale, New York and Hattiesburg, Mississippi: the only thing in common on the two monuments is the date of the war, 1861-1865.
So here we have two towns, in the span of 5 years (1910-1915) and square in the middle of the Jim Crow era in the South, erecting monuments honoring those who fought on opposite sides of the Civil War. The monuments reflect two different pasts and were, even then, creating two distinctively different futures.
Thus does history carry us. Moving like a glacier, it pushes us along trajectories set long ago and which we alter only with the greatest of effort.
Enter Minneapolis. Only the latest and clearest example of police brutality. Remember Rodney King? Remember Eric Garner? Breonna Taylor? Ahmaud Arbery? And now George Floyd! All too often, white policemen and black victims.
There’s a pattern here for all to see. How many times do we have to state the obvious?
Enter Martin Luther King, Jr. One hundred years after the Civil War, he ended his sermon to a Jewish congregation in Hollywood, California affirming his belief that the arc of the moral universe, though long, bends finally toward justice.
Right now, that affirmation is in question. One thing is sure however--we, you and I, all of us together make history what it is. Any bending toward justice that happens, we must do it.
Enter Vernon Dahmer, another civil rights martyr. There’s also a monument to him in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. January 7, 2020, on the lawn of the Forrest County Court House, it was dedicated in a moving ceremony before hundreds of local citizens, black and white. Ellie Dahmer, his courageous widow, was there along with other members of the Dahmer family. Speeches were made; prayers were offered; and a genuine feeling of unity prevailed.
I believe the life of Vernon Dahmer provides our grip on the arc of history! He was courageous in the face of violence. He went about his activism on behalf of black voting rights, knowing he was right, in spite of the danger. Most important of all may be the inscription on the base of his statue, “If you don’t vote, you don’t count.” Mundane as it seems right now, recruiting good candidates and turning out to vote for them will bend the arc. For now, however, it’s deep sadness and deep anger.
Conville is a retired college professor and long-time Hattiesburg resident.