In 1907 a statue was erected on the courthouse lawn of a college town in North Mississippi. A Confederate solder gazes south across the town square, down South Lamar Avenue toward the countryside of Lafayette County, Mississippi. It stands less than a mile from William Faulkner’s home.
In the middle of a pandemic that has caused disproportionate harm to Black people, we saw the killing of more Black people by white policemen. This has sparked renewed scrutiny of the statue in the center of our town. The picture above was taken Saturday, August 8. The protestors are a fairly good representation of how White people feel about the statue. Indignation is there on the one side and resistance to its removal on the other.
The front panel reads: “In memory of the patriotism of the Confederate soldiers of Lafayette County, Mississippi. They gave their lives for a just and holy cause.”
The back panel reads: “..the sons of veterans unite in this justification of their fathers’ faith.”
The statue is a cultural symbol. Anthropology teaches us that symbols are forms through which people express meaning. Symbols of all types (art, language, stories, etc.) are ways that the culture transmits the acceptable forms of behavior and attitudes within a community. Symbols are not accidental. They are meant to convey a message.
Were I protesting last Saturday I would have been standing with the young man on the left. But while musing on the back porch, I keep returning to a key issue for me, “what meaning do Black people attach to that statue”. I am a white Southerner with roots in the Mississippi Delta, the Appalachian yoemanry, and the upcountry of South Carolina and Mississippi. I am indignant that a Confederate statue is in the center of town, but right now Black Lives and Black feelings are what matter to me.
Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning reveals that the statue’s meaning might not have as much to do with slavery as I thought. The events of Reconstruction may have a stronger connection to it today. Reconstruction ended around 1877 only 25 years before the statue began its vigil on the square in 1907. After the humiliation and defeat of the Civil War, Whites were back in power and were determined to stay there. How they managed to regain their power is the story of Reconstruction. It has much to say about this statue and life in this community today.
I needed sources to tell the story. I found them at another symbol of our college town, Square Books. Ironically this depository has its main store directly across from the statue, but the books on the shelves provide another picture of the “just and holy cause”. All summer my library has grown to include the history, psychology, sociology, and literary foundations of race in America. To fully understand the statue and Reconstruction, we must put Black people at the center of the story.
Around the time the statue was constructed, William Archibald Dunning began to publish his historical analysis of Reconstruction. His ideas and those of his students became the prevailing interpretation until the 1960’s. This story was the one I learned in the fifth and sixth grade in Orlando, Florida. By that time, the story had sunk into the consciousness of White southerners and has stayed there for many,. White people were in the center of that story.
The story I learned went something like this. The Civil War ended and the South accepted the reality of defeat. They were ready to provide justice to their former slaves and desired to become, once again, part of the United States. Abraham Lincoln’s plans for Reconstruction were generous and, after his assassination,
Andrew Johnson began implementing those plans. A group of Republicans set out to undo all these altruistic plans because they hated the Southern rebels and wanted to consolidate their own power. They passed laws that dismissed the white governments of Johnson and allowed black suffrage to give those roles to Black
people. Carpet baggers and scalawags flooded to the south to spread all kinds of corruption and turmoil. Blacks were unprepared, were ignorant, and unable to govern. The South descended into chaos. Finally the white community had no choice but to band together and take over once again.
“ The former field hands found themselves suddenly elevated to the seats of the mighty. There they conducted themselves as creatures of small intelligence might naturally be expected to do. Like monkey’s or small children turned loose among treasured objects whose value is beyond their comprehension, they ran
wild—either from perverse pleasure in destruction or simply because of their ignorance.” Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind, 1936 and 1964. Quoted in “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your Textbook Got Wrong, James Loewen, 1995
Although it was difficult to even type those words, I am struck that I loved Gone With the Wind when I was 13 and living in Starkville, Mississippi. My mother allowed me to read the book that others considered scandalous. Scandalous due to the drama and the love scenes, not the racism! I swooned over Rhett Butler, was shocked at the “Frankly dear, I don’t give a damn”, and was totally unaware that this depiction of Black people was racist and not even accurate.
Eric Foner in Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877, narrates a different story. His work is actually a continuation of W. E. B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 published and ignored in 1935. They both put Black people in the center of the story and depicted them as far more than victims or problems.
Reconstruction holds the same moral, emotional, and cultural themes that we see in play today. Perhaps it
can also hold some answers. More musings tomorrow.
Eric Foner. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution
Ibram Kendi. Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
W.E.B Du Bois. Black Reconstruction in America
James W. Loewen. Lies My Teacher Told Me:Everything Your American Textbook Got Wrong