Do they all come tumbling down? The statues honoring heroes of the Confederacy, I mean. From Robert E. Lee to Stonewall Jackson, protesters have been deliberately defacing, even destroying many of them. Personally, I feel it's wrong to vandalize the statues, no matter how you feel about them.
I'm an admirer of great artwork, statues in particular, but have mixed feelings about monuments heralding the Confederacy. Admittedly, as works of art, they can be impressive. The Pollyanna living in me has always been able to compartmentalize the message they were meant to send and, yes, the reasons they were erected in the first place.
We're told the purpose of these monuments is to honor heroes (to some) of the American Civil War. But that's where the first problem arises. We shouldn't forget, the southern states turned against and fought the United States. (Today, we'd call that treason.) In a romantic and revisionist telling of history, the south went to war with the north in a dispute over "state's rights." But, and let's be honest, that sounds like a veiled attempt to lend some sense of nobility to the fight for the lost cause.
After all, one of the "rights" southern states wanted to maintain was the lawful ownership of other human beings. Namely, they wanted to hold members of my race in bondage, treating them as property, chattel, working the south's agricultural fields, or serving the domestic needs of a white aristocracy. As an African American, I'm supposed to be okay with that? I'm expected to celebrate with those southerners who proudly identify this as part of our region's heritage?
There are a number of groups dedicated to preserving these monuments, including the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Before today's efforts, a leader of that group once called attempts to remove these monuments "hatred leveled against our glorious ancestors." He called their removal an attempt to "erase our history."
Upon close examination, that history becomes very clear. Their placement was a double-edged sword. Even if we accept these monuments were erected to memorialize the costliest war in American history (in terms of lives lost), a simple fact must be acknowledged. The Confederate States of America were fighting against the United States of America, the country we all claim to love. Why would we honor those who fought against the United States?
If these monuments are about heritage, the question then becomes, whose heritage? Most historians agree Confederate monuments were erected with a primary intent: to honor fallen soldiers and generals of the south. Oh, okay. But, in truth, it was every bit as much about perpetuating the ideals of white supremacy. Their intent was to remind blacks of their "place" in southern society.
Many of them were erected in the early 1900s, at the time southern states were enacting Jim Crow laws. And we know what those laws were all about. Their sole purpose was to intimidate blacks and to prevent them from having the most basic American rights, including the right to vote. These laws were created to assert white race supremacy over blacks. Erected decades after the Civil War ended, monuments honoring the Confederacy were the very personification of Jim Crow.
The murder of George Floyd did not spark debate about removal of these statues; his death only added fuel to the fire. Long before the world knew who Mr. Floyd was, the City of New Orleans had already removed the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from, of all places, "Lee" Circle, near that city's historic Garden District and its rows of antebellum mansions.
Whenever I visited New Orleans, I marveled at Lee's statue. The Pollyanna in me was there as I gazed at the 20-foot tall (including its base) statue, standing on a magnificent 60-foot column. I looked at it, torn between my appreciation for statuary and what General Lee and the cause he fought for symbolized.
Today, the column remains, without the statue of General Lee at its summit, as New Orleans works on renaming Lee Circle altogether. Meanwhile, three other prominently displayed monuments to the Confederacy have also been removed from public display, all stored in undisclosed locations until the city decides a future for each.
Let's bring things closer to home. Hattiesburg, like so many southern cities, has its own monument honoring the Confederacy. Standing in the Forrest Country Courthouse square, the soaring monument declares itself dedicated to "The Men and Women of the Confederacy."
I walked by that monument many times when I was a child. I wasn't "proud" of the Confederacy; all I knew about the Civil War was what I'd been taught in history class. I was too young to appreciate the fact that one of the legacies of that war played out each time I walked past.
When I was growing up, on the very campus where the monument still stands, I had to drink room-temperature water from a fountain located outside, marked "colored." Fountains inside the courthouse, reserved for whites, provided chilled water, which would have been much appreciated on one of those hot, Hattiesburg summer afternoons.
I also couldn't use restrooms in the main building; there was a separate one downstairs for us colored folk. (I remember, it always smelled of stale urine.) Those are my earliest memories of the Forrest County Courthouse and then, of course, there's that monument.
As a child, I didn't give it much thought. There are so many things I remember about growing up in a segregated Hattiesburg I simply accepted as givens, like those separate water fountains at the courthouse. As my mother once explained when I'd question her, it was just "the way things were." With all our country is going through of late, my feelings about these monuments have been evolving.
Erected in 1910, the statue at Forrest County's courthouse may, indeed, have reflected the Hattiesburg of more than 100 years ago. But it certainly doesn't represent the Hattiesburg of 2020. As a 21st century African American, why would I want to honor "the men and women of the Confederacy?" History? Heritage?
The southern states have made an effort to, literally, rewrite the history of the south's participation in the Civil War. Groups like United Daughters of the Confederacy played a major role in that revisionism. (You'll find their name carved into the base of the courthouse monument.)
Movies like "Gone With The Windî glorified plantation life, and with it, the notion of satisfied slaves, happily toiling in the south's cotton fields, or working in plantation kitchens as domestics. Their imagined content delivered to us caricatures of "the happy negro," images like the soon-to-be-gone Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. Harmless portrayals of black folk? (I'll leave that judgement to you.)
Many of these monuments and statues were erected in the early 1900s when, in the minds of many white southerners, the Civil War was not over. Their placement in prominent spaces, especially on the grounds of public buildings, sent a message to blacks. They were a power play, of sorts, meant to strike intimidation, even fear in the hearts of black Americans. Beautiful works of art as they may be, there is nothing noble or beautiful in the spirit they were erected.
With my appreciation for art, you shouldn't be surprised, I've been divided about whether the monument should be removed and relocated. Hey, for better or worse, it's a bookmark in my own life's history. Today, though, I'm not some 10-year-old boy observing it. As an adult, I clearly understand why the south chose to secede from the United States. The rewriting of southern history aside, consider the followings words, spoken by Confederate States of America vice president, Alexander H. Stephens.
At the start of the Civil War, during a speech at Savannah, Georgia, in 1861, he declared: "The United States had been founded in 1776 on the false idea that all men are created equal. The Confederacy, by contrast, is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition."
Is that the southern "heritage" I'm supposed to be proud of? Should I wax sentimental for happier times, when members of my race were considered less than human?
Downtown Hattiesburg has a monument "dedicated" to the men and women of the Confederacy, directed only to the white men and women of that, thankfully, short-lived nation. Clearly, it does not speak for me, nor should it speak for any fair minded person in these United States of America.
Following heated debate at a recent board meeting, Forrest County supervisors chose to let voters decide what happens with downtown Hattiesburg's Confederate monument. (Kicking the can down the road?) We are painfully close to a no-win situation here. Let's hope November's vote doesn't result in the last thing we need right now, another "Civil War."
We're better than that.
Elijah Jones is a writer and a proud graduate of both Hattiesburg High School and the University of Southern Mississippi. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.