I firmly believe that our country is going through a major makeover, and Mississippi has the opportunity to be at the forefront of those changes.
The May murder of George Floyd by a now-indicted police officer in Minneapolis has sparked a national discussion about civil rights, excessive force tactics utilized by police and the many symbols of the Confederate States of America that are on proud display in many states.
Those symbols are prominent in the Magnolia State, where the romanticized “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy is still rooted in the minds of many residents. Perhaps the most prominent symbol in Mississippi is the state flag, which includes the Confederate battle emblem. Significant momentum is building to change the flag, and we have been told that lawmakers are working to make a change either through the legislative process or a statewide referendum.
Locally, the Confederacy is memorialized through a 1910 statue that sits by the circuit court building in downtown Hattiesburg. The statue is dedicated to Confederate war dead and also to Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who was born in Tennessee. When Forrest County was established in 1908, legislators decided to pay tribute to the infamous general – who was also the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan – by naming the county for him.
This past weekend, there was a large protest in downtown Hattiesburg by groups wanting the statue removed, and it has become a point of contention between Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker and the Forrest County Board of Supervisors. Angry residents have called on Barker to remove the statue, which is owned by the county. Of course, Barker has no authority to do so, and he has gently encouraged supervisors to consider removing it. I applaud the mayor for his public stance, and I am shocked at the lack of leadership from the supervisors on this issue.
The supervisors met Monday, and they should have made a decision on the future of the statue then. Instead, they squabbled with one another and eventually punted the issue to the polling place. The fate of the statue will thus be decided by Forrest County voters on Nov. 3, the same day of the presidential election. The statue vote will add more fire to an already hot election year, and I believe supervisors have, in this matter, failed in their basic responsibility of making day-to-day decisions for the betterment of the county.
My feelings on this particular statue – and the numerous other historical markers like it that are scattered throughout the nation – are complex, mostly because I was a history major in college and have a particular interest in Civil War history. I find myself to be generally against the removal of these monuments, but I do believe interpretive plaques should be added to each of them. These plaques should provide context and adequately explain the true nature of the Confederacy and its rebellion against the other states.
They should also minimize the heroics attributed to figures like Forrest, who is known for slaughtering more than 300 black Union soldiers following the Battle of Fort Pillow in April 1864. The plaques should be objective in nature and authored by credible historians, not by groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy or the Sons of Confederate Veterans. A plaque added to the Hattiesburg statue would have been a simple option for supervisors to consider, but they did not explore any alternatives beyond the removal of the statue.
Demonstrators have also asked supervisors to change the name of Forrest County, but that is a complex matter that would not be solved with an interpretive plaque. A name change would require significant action by the Mississippi Legislature, and I doubt lawmakers would consider it while also considering the various motions to change the state flag. However, a man can dream, and I think a name change is appropriate and necessary as we form a new and improved Mississippi that strives to be free of racism and has finally severed its ties to the Confederacy.
Personally, I think our county should be renamed in memory of Vernon Dahmer Sr., the civil rights leader and Forrest County NAACP chapter president who was murdered by the KKK in 1966. Supervisors recently honored Dahmer with a statue near the Confederate monument, so this idea should easily gain traction. By all accounts, Dahmer was a great man, and the county name would be a fitting way to memorialize someone who lost his life while helping his fellow citizens register to vote.
My idea may seem out of this world at this time, but it would be a great way to show the rest of the country that Mississippi is changing. For a moment, imagine the reaction of the world if we changed the name of our county, adopted a new state flag and added interpretive plaques to our Civil War monuments. Our state could be seen as a beacon of progress instead of as a laughingstock and as a place people should avoid.
A bright future is possible, but we have to stop imagining it and instead get to work. Leaders like Dahmer showed us how to make positive change happen, and we can follow in his footsteps to accomplish real and necessary change. Organize, write your legislators and local officials, peacefully assemble, petition … and we can move this state forward.