GULFPORT, Miss. — Tempers flared and guns were drawn in a faceoff in the courthouse square over Black Lives Matter, ancestry and the fate of a 100-plus-year-old statue memorializing Confederate war dead that carries the inscription “Lest We Forget.”
Yet this wasn’t a mob spontaneously tearing down statues linked to the Confederacy or otherwise deemed offensive, which has become almost routine in cities across the U.S.
In Mississippi, individual bronzed Confederate sentries have spent decades standing mute watch over the county courthouse in some 50 of the state’s counties. But the process has been more genteel despite the gunplay in Gulfport last week, with county boards of supervisors putting “cancel culture” to a vote.
Indeed, public opinion has managed to accomplish what unconditional surrender to the Union Army seemed unable to: remove the Confederate soldiers from public life. That is the goal of activists in Harrison County on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast who led Thursday’s rally urging elected officials to vote the statue down.
“We can come together as people, or we can perish as fools,” said the Rev. John Whitfield of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, addressing a crowd of some 40 people in the courthouse square, nearly evenly split between supporters and opponents.
“Stop trying to win a war the South lost,” said Mr. Whitfield, addressing statue supporters. “This statue’s purpose is intimidation, and to send a message to African Americans that they are not welcome, and sends a signal that justice is not available to all races that come before this court.”
Signs featuring a black fist or a Confederate flag were mixed around the base of the statue, erected in 1911. Several White men, some armed and some wearing bulletproof vests, stood alongside a Black protester carrying an assault rifle.
The only law enforcement official in sight was Bill Wright, a courthouse security guard.
Jeffrey Hulum III, an Army veteran and chief executive of a local nonprofit, raised his voice as he looked at the lines of people he said were “flanking and intimidating” him.
Mr. Hulum declared, “This is not a symbol of Jesus Christ; it’s hatred.”
He then spun around and pulled a handgun from his back waistband, and he and Mr. Whitfield walked quietly back to their cars.
Mr. Hulum and his cohorts would like Harrison County to follow an example set by several Mississippi counties. Almost all of the votes came after the state Legislature voted in June to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state’s banner, the last such symbol still in use among U.S. states.
“We’re trying to do it the right way. We don’t want anybody here looting or burning anything,” Mr. Hulum said.
In this summer of rage against statues, ignited by the May 25 death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody, at least five Mississippi counties — Bolivar, Leflore, Lowndes, Noxubee and Washington — have voted to remove their Confederate courthouse statues.
To be sure, not all elected officials in Mississippi think the same way. In at least three counties, the boards of supervisors voted to keep the statues. The stay vote was unanimous in Lafayette County. The most famous Confederate statue of all — the one that looms in the fiction of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County — stands in downtown Oxford.
A similar butternut sentry that stood on the Ole Miss campus, on the other hand, has been banished to a cemetery in a remote corner.
“I think its civic infamy outweighs its historical and literary significance,” said Jay Watson, a professor at Ole Miss and Faulkner scholar. “And for me, that main significance is the harm they still do.”
Mr. Watson recalled a 1964 incident near Philadelphia where three civil rights workers were killed. The Neshoba County courthouse there witnessed the 2005 conviction of Edgar Ray Killen for his role in those slayings, but the Neshoba supervisors voted to keep the Confederate statue outside it.
“I grew up in Athens, Georgia, and I think the Confederate statue is just a part of your background when you grow up in the Deep South,” Mr. Watson said. “And I think until you hear the stories from people about how wounded they are at the sight of them and what they represent — and I first heard it in Oxford — that’s when you realize they don’t belong here or on this campus.”
Mr. Watson noted that Oxford’s statue, like most others in Mississippi, was not put up by those who fought in the Civil War. Instead, the statues were usually erected decades later by groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
In other words, the statues that were erected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries reflect “Lost Cause” romanticism that was engulfing the Deep South and which, according to those favoring removal, was intended to obscure the Confederacy’s chief purpose of maintaining slavery.
A massive monument behind the state capital in Jackson was erected in 1917 by the mothers, wives, daughters and sisters of the Confederacy, which features a female figure hovering over a dying soldier.
The UDC did not respond to a request for comment.
In June, the group’s Loudoun County chapter asked to take back the Confederate monument it had erected there in 1908.
It certainly represents that to Mr. Hulum, whose Extend a Hand Help a Friend nonprofit serves free meals to senior citizens.
He and Mr. Whitfield put the blame squarely on Harrison County’s Board of Supervisors for failing even to act on their demands. Mr. Whitfield has vowed to picket their homes if they do not put the issue to a vote.
“It keeps getting pushed back, but they need to take a vote on it. Don’t just wait,” Mr. Hulum said.
The five supervisors did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails from The Washington Times asking about the topic. Board President Connie Rockco is a declared candidate for tax assessor in November, and Mr. Hulum accused her of trying to delay a vote until after the election.
As Mr. Hulum noted, the consortium that wants Harrison County’s Confederate statue removed is following the law. In 2004, the legislature ruled that no “war monument may be relocated, removed, altered, renamed or rededicated,” but it does allow the governing body to move a statue to a more “suitable” or “appropriate” place.
Civic unrest is sure to follow if the calls for removal are not heeded, Mr. Whitfield said.
“We are asking that it be removed before someone comes and defaces it or tears it down,” he said at the rally. “If justice cannot be found, you should not expect people to abide by the laws in Harrison or the other counties in Mississippi.”
His remarks drew vocal rebukes from some White pro-monument demonstrators. Many of the Whites who showed up armed declined to give their names but said they were members of the Southern Defense Force and were “neutral” on the monument.
“We’re just here in case something goes wrong,” the militia leader said.
At one point, an immense pro-monument demonstrator sitting at its base collapsed suddenly in a heap, and Mr. Hulum sprang to his assistance, helping him sit up and providing water to clean his face and arms.
Some counties have found other solutions. In Lauderdale County, supervisors voted to keep the statue but did so while noting the courthouse is to be converted into a history museum and thus the location is appropriate.
Forrest County will put the issue before voters in November; in Lee County, there is a move similar to that in Harrison County urging the removal.
“It’s different around Mississippi,” Mr. Hulum said. “Up in Lee County, they’ll call you the n-word to your face, whereas around Gulfport they do it with housing and job opportunities and the like.”
More broadly, Americans are divided on whether Confederate statues should come down. Although a large majority of Black Americans favor their removal, along with those of statues of presidents who owned slaves such as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, White Americans are less certain, according to a YouGov/Economist poll taken in June.
When asked about the removal of Confederate statues, 41% of Americans overall said they approved, 39% said they disapproved and 20% said they had no opinion on the issue.
The poll found that 45% overall saw the statues as symbols of “Southern pride” and 34% as racist.