The name ‘Dahmer County’ has a nice ring to it …

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.

The status quo must change, and the state flag must come down

As a history buff, I have always been particularly interested in my family tree.

My mother spent several years compiling an exhaustive archive of information on our family, and some of that information dates back to the 1600s.

We have traced our family connections to Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, and we have even discovered a connection to Martin Van Buren, the eighth president of the United States. He served one term between 1837-1841, and he is widely regarded as a below-average president. As you can imagine, I don’t tout my connection to him often, but it seems pertinent to include the president in this article.

My family has been rooted in southwest Mississippi for generations, particularly in Lincoln and Lawrence counties. In fact, my family lives pretty much on the line that divides the two counties, and they’re about 15 minutes away from Brookhaven or 10 minutes away from Monticello.

My parents – and most of my immediate family – live on Perch Creek, which empties into Fair River, on land complete with rolling hills and a nice fishing pond. It’s a great area, but don’t expect cellphone service or high-speed internet.

Anyway, the Wilsons have been there for a while. In fact, many of my ancestors fought in the Civil War, and several of them never returned home from that bloody conflict. We have detailed records on many of those family members, including my great-great-great-grandfather, Lorenzo Wilson, and his brothers.

Lorenzo enlisted as a private in the Confederate States Army on June 1, 1861, and he served his new country – the Confederate States of America, which Mississippi officially joined in February of that same year – for the next two years. He was captured at the Battle of Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in November 1863, and he spent the remaining three months of his life in a federal prison in Rock Island, Illinois.

The prison was unfinished when Lorenzo and his fellow captives arrived, and the temperatures were below zero. There was no hospital or sanitation system, and those early prisoners were subject to a smallpox outbreak and malnutrition. Lorenzo died, reportedly of starvation, on Jan. 31, 1864, at age 38. He left behind a wife, Jemima, and five children, including my great-great-grandfather, Orlando.

Lorenzo is buried in the prison cemetery, and a white tombstone marks his grave. My grandfather, Jerry, spent years of his life wishing he could reclaim Lorenzo’s remains and bury him with his family in Mississippi, but the cost was prohibitively high and the red tape difficult to cut. The emotional toll of losing someone in the Civil War was still fresh when my grandfather was born in 1926. In fact, Orlando lived until 1944, and he was able to share the memories of losing his father at a young age with my grandfather.

The pain of the loss – along with the anger over Lorenzo’s treatment at the prison – has traveled through generations, and it’s difficult for me to reconcile my heritage with my current thoughts on the debate over the Mississippi state flag. For the record, I want the flag to come down, and I believe it’s a symbol of white supremacy and hate. It features the Confederate battle emblem, and my ancestors fought under that very same emblem. I’m sure they believed their cause to be just, and they died for it. How can I be against that emblem and their cause without being ashamed of them?

I believe this is an ethical dilemma facing many descendants of Confederate soldiers who are aware of their heritage and want things to change for the better. This topic is a painful one for me, and it’s certainly uncomfortable, but it must be explored. White Mississippians must be able to remember their history without worshipping it, and we must be able to memorialize our Confederate war dead without idolizing their cause. We can’t write off our history, but we can no longer afford to glamorize it.

The “Lost Cause” mythos, or the idea that the South had honorable reasons to fight in the war, must end. We must recognize that the Confederacy was a failed state built on the evils of slavery, and its symbols – including the battle emblem – are, to our black neighbors, extremely painful reminders of that fact. We should be aware of our ancestors, and we should honor them by changing the status quo.

Racism has no place in 2020, and the state flag and its divisive symbol must go. The time is now, and I’m calling on my fellow descendants of Confederate soldiers to stand with me, to grasp hands with all of our neighbors and to push this change forward.