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Confederate Statues Come Down Around U.S., But Not Everywhere

Oct 6, 2020
Originally published on October 7, 2020 3:18 pm

About 60 Confederate monuments have come down across the U.S. amid a national reckoning on race — but nearly half as many localities that considered removing their statues have decided to keep them.

Since George Floyd's death in May that sparked nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice, there have been votes or decisions to protect 28 monuments, according to an NPR count.

These monuments — from Tallahassee, Fla., to Stone Mountain, Ga., to Cochise County, Ariz. — are among the nearly 700 Confederate memorials that remain on public land, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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How a community goes about deciding what to do with its Confederate statue can be arduous, says Leonard Moore, a historian who lectures about race, civil rights and monuments at the University of Texas at Austin.

While he doesn't believe these Civil War monuments belong on public property, he says those difficult conversations about race and history are a sign of progress.

"I love that we can engage around these things across racial lines," says Moore, vice president for diversity and community engagement at the university, which has had its own battle over Confederate statues on campus.

"I just really like that sometimes [with] the nonpolitical correctness, people will tell you what's on their mind. ... Now you can have an honest dialogue and honest debate back-and-forth."

NPR recently visited Marshall, Texas, and Shreveport, La. — neighboring cities that fiercely debated their Confederate monuments and had two different outcomes.

Back in July, it seemed like officials in Marshall — tucked in the piney woods of northeast Texas were on the verge of moving their marble statue of a rebel soldier. The curly-haired infantryman gripping a muzzleloader rifle has stood beside the courthouse for 114 years.

Even Bill Elliott with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which defends the monuments as important parts of history, was pessimistic.

"We ain't won anywhere. I'll be honest with you," Elliott said earlier in the summer. "If it's got to be moved, we're for working with everybody. We just want it to go somewhere that's gonna be safe."

But Marshall's experience shows that Confederate statues are not so easy to topple.

In the city that was a stronghold of the Confederacy west of the Mississippi, people voiced their opinions for and against the statue for months. In mid-August, a proposal finally went before the Harrison County Commissioner's Court.

County Judge Chad Sims read the motion "to relocate the [Confederate] soldier statue currently located on the east side of the Harrison County historic courthouse grounds to another acceptable and secure location."

Then Zephaniah Timmins, the lone Black and Democratic commissioner, made his case: "I believe that history does not need to be destroyed, and I also don't want the constant reminder of the suffering that my ancestors endured by the Confederacy."

Zephaniah Timmins, a commissioner in Harrison County, Texas, made a motion to remove the Confederate soldier statue in front of his courthouse, but there was no second.
Harrison County, Texas / NPR

But when the county judge brought the motion to a vote, no commissioner would second it. Timmins quickly withdrew the motion before Sims could bring down his gavel, saving it for another day.

"I guess it should turn me to anger," Timmins said in an interview after the vote, "but it just makes me want to work harder and do what I need to do for my community."

The leader of the months-long effort to remove the statue, a fiery fifth-grade teacher named Demetria McFarland, was furious.

"I was disappointed, but I wasn't surprised at the fact that the statue is still standing in this good ol' boy city of Marshall, Texas," she said. "So, it's like they're telling us that they don't care about how we feel."

All four white officials on the commissioner's court declined to speak to NPR on why they chose to leave the statue standing.

"There are strong feelings on both sides," Sims said in an email. "I'd like to stay neutral and not be part of any discord."

Statue defenders such as Jason Mosely, a local painting contractor, are grateful to the court.

"We just want to preserve history is all we want to do," he said. "You can't really go by what that statue says. The Confederacy doesn't mean that slaves were part of it. That's just a period of time is all it is."

But statue opponents say preserving history requires being accurate about history.

"There is no mention in the articles of secession in Texas about state's rights. Slavery is mentioned 21 times," says former County Judge Richard Anderson, a Democrat who wants the statue moved. "It was about slavery, pure and simple."

Head east on the interstate from Marshall — past truck stop casinos, an alligator park and the state line — and you arrive at a city that has taken a different course: Shreveport.

For nearly two decades, the Caddo Parish Commission debated what to do with the imposing Civil War memorial in front of the courthouse. Thirty feet tall, it features a rebel soldier, four Confederate generals and Clio, the muse of history.

But the commissioners always deadlocked: six Black Democrats versus six white Republicans.

At a meeting three years ago, Commissioner Matthew Linn, who is white and Republican, crossed over. He told the packed courtroom at the time: "My decision is not based on me being a Southern boy. My decision is based simply on the fact that I value the purity that a courthouse is supposed to stand for."

Today, the statue is still a volatile issue.

Linn declined to be interviewed for this report because he doesn't want more death threats. And Caddo Parish built a wooden barrier around the monument after George Floyd's death to protect it from protesters and shield it from public view, even though the Confederate soldier is still plainly visible.

The statue remains where it is three years later because of legal wrangling with the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which erected the memorial in 1905. The parish plans to move it to a nearby Confederate cemetery, maybe early next year.

Caddo Parish, La., Commissioner Lyndon B. Johnson stands in front of the Civil War monument that is on its way out. Johnson sponsored the successful motion to have it removed.
John Burnett/NPR

"It doesn't belong in front of a courthouse. It belongs in a museum, or it belongs in a cemetery," says Lyndon B. Johnson, the Black commissioner who made the motions to move the monument and erect the box. "And to have it here when people come in wanting to make sure they can get a fair trial, it shows bias."

Johnson, whose parents named him for the 36th U.S. president, says the symbolism of a Confederate monument in front of a house of justice, in a parish where 40% of the population is African American, was so potent that it was influencing the operation of the courts.

"You had jurors in the past that basically didn't make a jury because of the statue," he says.

Historian Gary Joiner with Louisiana State University in Shreveport laments the loss of the monument, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as representing "the Cult of the Lost Cause."

"Certainly, Confederate monuments have offended a large part of the community," Joiner said, "but you can't look at anything that is so divisive from just one point. When you tear down history, you allow a dumbing-down of the past."

For some folks, the statue represents ancestors who fought and died in the War Between the States.

For others, it is a reminder of a period of savage racialized violence during the years of Reconstruction known as Bloody Caddo. A historian writes that "reconstituted Confederate military units" turned the parish into "a hunting ground," executing Black freedmen or driving them off their property.

Longtime Caddo Commissioner Ken Epperson, who is Black, feels so strongly about the statue that he refuses to have his official picture hang in the courthouse until it's gone.

"And once that thing is gone," he said emphatically, "just make it a nice, beautiful flower bed or green spot, and that's the end of it. We don't want nothin' else down there."

Piper McDaniel is an intern on NPR's National Desk.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Americans have removed many dozens of Confederate monuments across this country. But in many places, the monuments are staying put. Half the localities that considered removing the statues decided to keep them. One of our great storytellers, NPR's John Burnett, has a story of two cities with different outcomes.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: When I visited Marshall, Texas, in July, it seemed like they were ready to move the marble statue of a rebel soldier. The curly-haired infantryman gripping a muzzle loader rifle has stood beside the courthouse for 114 years. Even Bill Elliott, with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, sounded fatalistic.

BILL ELLIOTT: We ain't won anywhere. I'll be honest with you. We ain't won anywhere.

BURNETT: But Marshall's experience shows that Confederate statues are not so easy to topple. Here in the piney woods of deep East Texas, in a town that was a stronghold of the Confederacy west of the Mississippi, people had been voicing their opinions for and against the statue for months. Late this summer, the motion finally went before the Harrison County Commissioners Court.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHAD SIMS: To seek permission to relocate the Confederate soldier statue to another acceptable and secure location.

BURNETT: That was County Judge Chad Sims. Then Zephaniah Timmins, the lone Black and Democratic commissioner, made his case.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZEPHANIAH TIMMINS: I believe that history do not need to be destroyed, and I also don't want the constant reminder of the suffering that my ancestors endured by the Confederacy.

BURNETT: Judge Sims called for a vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Motion by Mr. Timmins. Is there a second?

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

BURNETT: When no commissioner would second it, Timmins quickly pulled back his motion before Sims could bring down his gavel and kill it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIMMINS: Withdraw the motion.

BURNETT: Since the death of George Floyd in May that sparked nationwide protests, some 60 Confederate monuments have been taken down across the country. But other localities have decided to leave their statues up. An NPR count shows votes or decisions to protect at least 28 controversial monuments from Tallahassee, Fla., to Stone Mountain, Ga., to Cochise County, Ariz. They're among the nearly 700 Confederate memorials that remain on public land, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

DEMETRIA MCFARLAND: I was disappointed, but I wasn't surprised at the fact the statue is still standing in this good ole boy city of Marshall, Texas.

BURNETT: Demetria McFarland is the public school teacher who spearheaded the local effort to remove the statue.

MCFARLAND: That was kind of my hope - was that they would have realized that, hey, we're going to do what we can to help the Black community heal here in Marshall. So it's like they're telling us, you know, that they don't care about how we feel.

BURNETT: All four white officials on the commissioners court declined to speak to NPR on why they chose to leave the statue standing. Judge Sims emailed, there are strong feelings on both sides. I'd like to stay neutral.

Statue defenders like Jason Mosely, a local painting contractor, are grateful to the court.

JASON MOSELY: We just want to preserve history is all we want to do. You can't really go by what that statue says. The Confederate doesn't mean that slaves were part of it. You know, that's just a period of time is all it is.

BURNETT: But statue opponents say preserving history requires being accurate about history.

RICHARD ANDERSON: There is no mention in the articles of secession in Texas about states' rights. Slavery is mentioned 21 times.

BURNETT: Former county judge Richard Anderson is incensed when he hears people say that slavery was not central to Confederate Texas. He's a Democrat who wants the statue moved.

ANDERSON: So it was slavery - pure and simple.

BURNETT: Head east from Marshall, past truck stop casinos and an alligator park, and you arrive at a city that's taken a different course - Shreveport, La. For nearly two decades, the Caddo Parish commission debated what to do with the imposing Civil War memorial in front of the courthouse. It features a rebel soldier and four Confederate generals. But the commissioners always deadlocked - six Black Democrats to six white Republicans - until three years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Mr. Clark, can we have the roll call, please?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Dominick, Johnson...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Present.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Jackson, Linn...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Present.

BURNETT: In that meeting, Commissioner Matthew Linn, who's white and Republican, crossed over.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTHEW LINN: My decision is not based on me being a Southern boy. My decision is based simply on the fact that I value the purity that a courthouse is supposed to stand for.

BURNETT: After the vote came down 7 to 5 to relocate the statue, the gallery erupted

(CHEERING)

BURNETT: Today, the statue remains a volatile issue. Matthew Linn declined an interview for this report because he doesn't want more death threats. And the parish built a big wooden barrier around the monument after George Floyd's death to protect it from protesters. The statue's still there because of legal wrangling with the United Daughters of the Confederacy. But the parish plans to move it to a nearby Confederate cemetery, hopefully early next year.

LYNDON B JOHNSON: It doesn't belong in front of a courthouse. It belongs in a museum or it belongs in a cemetery. And to have it here and when people come in wanting to make sure they can get a fair trial, it shows bias.

BURNETT: That's Lyndon B. Johnson, the Black commissioner who made the motion to move the monument. Yes, his parents named him for the U.S. president. Standing in front of the boxed statue, Johnson says the symbolism of a Confederate monument in front of a house of justice where 40% of the parish is Black was so potent that it was influencing the operation of the courts.

JOHNSON: So you had jurors in the past that basically didn't make a jury because of the statue.

BURNETT: Longtime Commissioner Ken Epperson feels so strongly about the statue that he refuses to have his official picture hang in the courthouse until it's gone.

KEN EPPERSON: And once that thing is gone, just make it a nice, beautiful flower bed or green spot, and that's the end of it. We don't want nothing else down there.

BURNETT: How a community goes about deciding what to do with its Confederate monument can be arduous. Leonard Moore is a historian who lectures about race and civil rights and monuments at the University of Texas at Austin, where he's vice president for diversity.

LEONARD MOORE: I love when we can engage around these things, you know, across racial lines. I just really, really like, sometimes, the non-political correctness. People will tell you what's on their mind. But I like it because now you can have an honest dialogue and honest debate back and forth.

BURNETT: Leonard Moore doesn't think Civil War monuments belong on public property, but he believes those difficult conversations about race and history are themselves a sign of progress.

John Burnett, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE FALL'S "OLD COUNTY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.