Events seek civil discourse on Confederate symbols

Published 9:28 pm Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Confederate images evoke strong feelings, and discussions about the public display of flags or monuments can quickly turn rancorous.

The director of the Mississippi Humanities Council, Stuart Rockoff, said he believed there must be a way to have calm, rational discourse, so the council provided two forums last week.

On Oct. 23 at an art gallery in Cleveland, the council hosted an event it billed as “a civilized dialogue” about the Confederate battle emblem that has been on the state flag since 1894. The next night at a bar in Jackson, the council and the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation hosted a discussion about Confederate monuments.

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Neither event devolved into a shouting match.

One of the panelists in Cleveland was Delta State University professor Charles Westmoreland, who was among the historians signing a public statement in August saying that the Confederate battle emblem on the Mississippi flag is a “symbol of racial terror.” The other panelists were Republican state Rep. Dana Criswell of Olive Branch, who said the state flag should remain as it is so children can learn about history, and Democratic state Rep. Abe Hudson of Shelby, who told the audience of about 30 people that the flag is divisive and should be changed to a design that could unify the diverse state.

In Jackson, philosophy professor Peyton McElroy told an audience of about 40 that monuments are pieces of public art that are “intended to make us feel something.” History professor Anne Marshall provided context about when and how Confederate monuments became part of the Southern landscape.

Marshall, who teaches at Mississippi State University, said Confederate monuments erected in the 1870s and 1880s tended to be obelisks or grave markers in cemeteries that would evoke a sense of mourning or loss. Those put up between 1890 and the end of World War I tended to be in spaces of civic power — in front of courthouses, along main streets or in town squares. And, Marshall said, they were more likely to be “inscribed with odes to Confederate heroes and tributes to the Confederacy for which they fought.”

United Daughters of the Confederacy was formed in 1894, and Marshall said members raised money for monuments. She also said companies started manufacturing monuments, which made them less expensive. She said a few companies made most of the monuments on courthouse lawns across the South.

Marshall said it’s important to remember events that were happening between about 1900 and 1920, when most of Mississippi’s Confederate monuments appeared.

“This boom in monument building coincided with the concerted effort of white Southerners to maintain racial supremacy across the South,” Marshall said. “This was a time when more rigid segregation laws were instituted. These were the years when Theodore Bilbo was elected for the first term as governor. This was the heyday of lynching in Mississippi and throughout the South.”

She said it was also a peak time for the ideas of the Lost Cause — the belief that the Confederacy fought for noble reasons.

“I think today a lot of the debate centers around why people put up these monuments in the first place, and whether these monuments were connected to the defense of slavery or to racial order where whites were on top,” Marshall said. “The people who lived at this time very clearly would agree that it did. They were clear in their connection to these ideas. They just didn’t think that slavery or white supremacy were bad the same way that most people today do.”

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter at EWagsterPettus.