Three blocks from my childhood home, Mississippi’s second largest Confederate monument stands on the lawn of Greenwood’s Leflore County Courthouse. Five figures carved from marble surround the base. The sixth figure, standing on the monument’s pinnacle, is of Gen. Benjamin Grubbs Humphreys, who, despite being removed as Mississippi’s governor in 1868, was celebrated for instituting the Black Codes in 1866. These laws criminalized Blackness and led to the rise of sharecropping and convict leasing, which fueled white Greenwood’s economic fortune.
Fundraising for Greenwood’s monument was led by Lizzie George Henderson. Before her marriage, Henderson served as secretary to her father, Sen. J.Z. George, a planter and Confederate colonel who helped craft the Mississippi Plan, which disenfranchised most Blacks of the right to vote via poll taxes and selective literacy tests.
Henderson was president of the national chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization whose goal was to instruct and distill in the “descendants of the South a proper respect for the pride in a glorious war history.” The UDC controlled how the Civil War was remembered by sponsoring patriotic essay contests and by placing Confederate flags, portraits of Confederate leaders and pro-Confederate history books in public school classrooms. They led fundraising for monuments erected across the nation and helped shape Southern and national white opinion into a pro-Confederate consensus. These efforts created a social silence on the wrongs enacted by white elites before the Civil War and during its bloody aftermath, whitewashing white supremacy into heritage.
The Greenwood monument was erected in 1913. The name of my great grandfather, son of a Confederate and former mayor of Greenwood, was among those read at the ceremony. The monument was erected 24 years after a posse of white men in Leflore County slaughtered a group of Black men for participating in the Colored Farmers Alliance. The monument also stood sentinel back in 1964, when a Black minister led his parishioners to register to vote at the courthouse, and the police department attacked the congregation with German shepherds. To date, 48% of African Americans, who make up 70% of Greenwood’s population, live below the poverty line.
As an adult, I live in Athens, Georgia, the state with the most Confederate monuments in the nation. Athens is guarded by a monument of its own, erected in 1872, shortly after the war, at the end of Reconstruction, a time when the Ku Klux Klan was organizing to discourage Black equality. It is the second monument in Georgia and ninth in the nation.
Fundraising for Athens’ monument was led by Laura Cobb Rutherford, sister of Howell Cobb, a five-term member of the United States House of Representatives and speaker, who also served as Georgia’s 40th governor and was President Buchanan’s secretary of the treasury. In 1856,Cobb published A Scriptural Examination of the Institution of Slavery in the United States, which argued that African slavery was a punishment “inflicted upon the enslaved for their wickedness,” and that “slavery, as it exists in the United States, is the Providentially arranged means whereby Africa is to be lifted from her deep degradation, to a state of civil and religious liberty.”
Howell Cobb was one of the founders of the Confederacy, serving as president of the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States, and he oversaw the drafting of the Confederate constitution. In his last public speech at Bush Arbor in Atlanta in 1868, Cobb argued for the reestablishment of a white supremacist government in Georgia, encouraging his listeners to “rid yourselves of the miserable vermin who are fastening themselves upon you, who are calling on you to appoint them to the Supreme Court, to the Superior Court, and the District Court, and who, in the better days of the Republic, never would have presumed to solicit the appointment of a doorkeeper or of a messenger, men whom you know to be unworthy.”
The Confederate dead on the Athens monument are listed in alphabetical order after Gen. T.R.R. Cobb, Laura and Howell’s brother, who died in 1862 at the Battle of Fredericksburg. T.R.R. Cobb was an author of the Confederate constitution and of Cobb’s Inquiry, which argued that the “negro race” was built for labor due to physicality, that their mental capacity “adapts them for the direction of the wiser race,” and that their “moral character renders them happy, peaceful, contented and cheerful in a status that would break the spirit and destroy the energies of the Caucasian or the native American.”
To date, 26.4% of the residents of Athens-Clarke County are Black, and 39.2% of them live below the poverty line.
Recently, in both Greenwood and Athens, local governments have voted to remove the monuments. The decision is controversial. In Athens, the Sons of Confederate Veterans filed a lawsuit (later thrown out) to prevent the monument’s removal, arguing that would be “an act of terrorism, equivalent to the atrocities performed by the Taliban and ISIS to erase the heritage and culture in their region,” sentiments which are reflected by some in Mississippi.
Regardless, commissioners in both towns have agreed to continue with their plans for removal. In effect, they are acknowledging that the monuments were erected by white supremacists to celebrate former slave owners who enacted racist policies which have led to people of color being disproportionately poor and overrepresented in the prison system today. It’s a move we should all celebrate. By removing the monuments, we are able to show respect to the African Americans enslaved here in the South and to their descendants—and also honor those who have spent the past four centuries fighting for equality. We should all celebrate this rejection of white supremacy, and view the removals as a new beginning, an investment in an equitable, antiracist future, not just in our communities, but in America.
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