One Mississippi city grapples with confederate statue, civil rights past
Published 5:57 am Monday, August 9, 2021
For more than a century, one of Mississippi’s largest and most elaborate Confederate monuments has looked out over the lawn at the courthouse in the center of Greenwood, a Black-majority city with a history of civil rights protests and clashes. Protesters have demonstrated at the base of the towering pillar with six Confederate figures — some residents demanding removal amid a racial reckoning across the country, others advocating for the statue’s protection as a piece of history.
Now, after years of debate, a new statue will be erected in Greenwood — one of Emmett Till, the Black 14-year-old who was brutally beaten and shot in 1955 by white men just 10 miles from the city. The likeness of Till, whose death is still under federal investigation, will be one of only a handful of statues of African Americans in Mississippi, where dozens of Confederate monuments still dot the landscape at courthouses, town squares and other prominent locations.
Greenwood is one of hundreds of cities and towns nationwide grappling with painful, expensive questions: What should be done with these tributes to the Civil War and the Confederate soldiers who fought in it? And, what monuments should go up in their place to represent the community?
Across Mississippi, multiple places have voted to remove monuments; the few that have followed through found it costly, with a $1 million bill at the University of Mississippi. In Charlottesville, Virginia, a larger-than-life figure of Gen. Robert E. Lee was recently carted away by truck — nearly four years after a deadly, racist rally there. Dozens of Confederate statues fell across the country during the 2020 protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis — many in liberal-leaning urban centers, while those in rural or conservative places stood.
But far fewer cities have solidified plans for new tributes or monuments in their place.
In Greenwood, as in many places, change has come slowly.
The Leflore County Board of Supervisors voted more than a year ago, in June 2020, to remove the Confederate statue, erected in 1913 by the Varina Jefferson Davis Chapter United Daughters of the Confederacy. The board — where four of five members are Black — stipulated that the monument, whose most prominent figure is former Mississippi Gov. and Civil War Gen. Benjamin G. Humphreys, not be replaced by any piece honoring the civil rights movement or other county history.
The vote followed a yearslong discussion about what to do with the monument after a Black public schoolteacher and his father, Troy Brown Jr. and Troy Brown Sr., began petitioning for removal in 2017. The county initially came up with an idea to leave the Confederate statue and build a civil rights monument — one that would likely include Till — on the courthouse lawn to “create balance.”
But community members continued to push for removal. The county’s Black board members voted 4-0 to remove the statue. The lone white member, Sam Abraham, did not attend the meeting. He later told the Greenwood Commonwealth newspaper he would have voted to keep the Confederate statue.
Board member Reginald Moore voted to move the monument, saying it “serves as a symbol of intimidation, of fear, of treason, domestic terrorism, slavery and murder.”
Member Robert Collins said the statue didn’t bother him, but that if it caused pain for others, it should be removed. Collins was a young boy when Till was killed; he recalled the fear it ignited in the Black community and said it’s a story the community should not forget. But he was vocal in his opinion that another monument shouldn’t replace it, regardless of its meaning or intent.
“The courthouse belongs to the people of Leflore County,” he said. “If we’re going to remove that monument, we shouldn’t put no monument on the property of Leflore County.”
But still, the Confederate statue stands, the process slowed by bureaucracy, with no concrete plan for removal.
Board members did not return calls from The Associated Press inquiring about an update. Mississippi Department of Archives and History spokesperson Michael Morris said county attorney Joyce Chiles reached out to their department for a consultation in November, but noted that the agency hasn’t heard from her since.
In April, Democratic state Sen. David Jordan of Greenwood reignited a conversation about a Till statue in the city of 13,500. He’s one of the last people alive locally who attended the trial for Till’s killers.
“There are so many heroes that need to be recognized,” Jordan said of the need for the cities to make plans for new monuments when Confederate ones are gone. “It’s about trying to get justice for so many good people that have been mistreated.”
When Till was killed, Jordan was just starting college as a freshman at a historically black college nearby. He and three friends pooled their money to buy enough gasoline — at 25 cents a gallon— to drive to the Sumner courthouse for the trial. Jordan remembers seeing the defendants drinking Coca-Cola in the sweltering courtroom and laughing with their wives and children — clearly not fearing conviction.
“They were the heroes, the most respected people,” Jordan, now 88, said. “Many said that they did the right thing, killing him. They thought Emmett Till was out of place.”
Till was visiting relatives in Mississippi from his home in Chicago. He was accused of whistling at and making sexual advances on 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant at a grocery store. Her husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother J.W. Milam abducted Till from his great-uncle’s home at gunpoint.
Till’s brutalized body, weighted down with a cotton gin fan, was later pulled from the Tallahatchie River — the same river that claimed the Union merchant ship The Star of the West during the Civil War 90 years earlier. The ship is memorialized on Greenwood’s monument, with the pilot wheel etched into one side.
Images of Till’s mutilated body in his open casket gave witness to the depth of racial hatred in the Deep South and inspired civil rights campaigns. Bryant and Milam were acquitted, though they later confessed to the crime in a magazine interview. Both are now dead.
Sen. Jordan said it would feel like poetic justice to erect the Till statue in front of the courthouse — the very place where dogs were set on Black residents trying to register to vote, in a city where racist Citizens’ Councils maintained regional headquarters.
“If we can show that change can happen here, it can happen anywhere,” Jordan said.
But the county board wouldn’t budge. Collins said in April that allowing the Till statue on the courthouse lawn would be a “double standard.”
“To move one statue and put another statue up, I wouldn’t be representing all the people I’m supposed to be representing if I did that,” Collins, who is Black, said during a board meeting.
Jordan was hurt by the decision, especially given that the Confederate statue also hadn’t budged yet.
“I told them, let the Emmett Till statue be there for 100 years, and then you can move it,” he said. “Then, it would be balanced. But I don’t understand ‘double standard.’ What kind of double standard? Just give me equal time.”
Ultimately, late last month, the council voted unanimously in favor of erecting the Till statue, just not on the courthouse lawn. Instead, the statue will go up in a park half a mile away from the courthouse and the Confederate monument. The Till tribute will be funded, at least in part, with $150,000 from a bond bill from the state legislature, Jordan said, and he plans for the statue to stand at 9 feet tall, made of bronze.
He’s also decided to be optimistic about the location. The park is by the railroad tracks that once separated where Black and white residents lived and worked in racially segregated Greenwood — the Greenwood Jordan knew growing up. He said he hopes the statue’s presence there will unite the community.
For now, residents on both sides of the issue are frustrated with officials’ lack of a plan.
Melissa Earnest — a white resident who grew up in Drew, 3 miles from the shed where Emmett Till was beaten before he was taken to the Tallahatchie River — wants to see movement toward removal, and more monuments to civil rights figures whose stories have been ignored.
“It’s a representation of progress,” she said.
Larry McCluney said he considers the statue a tribute to Confederate soldiers who died on the battlefield. He’s also in favor of the Till statue — even at the courthouse — as long as the Confederate statue stands.
“It’s the same thing if I went out to the graveyard and knocked over one of your family members’ headstones,” said McCluney, a history teacher and commander-in-chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization for male descendants of Confederate veterans that spans 30,000 members. “That’s how people feel about these things: You are removing the only thing I have that I can go to as a family member and remember my ancestors.”
Brown Sr., one of the residents who petitioned for removal, said Greenwood needs to show the world what it stands for.
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about the Confederacy, but we definitely should not celebrate it in a sense that we have that statue looking over the town, as if it was something we’re proud of,” Brown said. “That young boy’s life — that’s a story worth being told.”