By Anna Grace Usery
Many passionate speakers on both sides of the debate regarding the removal of the Lafayette County Confederate statue spoke in front of the Lafayette County Supervisors June 22 during a specially called meeting.
The meeting was in response to a protest outside the Chancery Court June 15 where demonstrators were displeased they were not allowed on the meeting’s agenda.
During a civil and peaceful meeting, those who advocated for the statue’s removal used emotional and spiritual rationales, while those in favor of the statue took a more ancestral and economic approach.
Board President Mike Roberts, who represents District 5, opened the meeting saying each side had 30 minutes to speak and asked the room to be respectful.
Starke Miller, a local Civil War historian, spoke first. He presented research about the historical context of the statue, how much it cost to build and why he believes it should stay to represent the area’s history.
He said the statue was built simply because, “If you send a southern boy to war, you do not get a body bag. Those monuments… None of them are about racism. They only raised it because of the boys they lost. That was the only marker those boys ever got anywhere.”
He said out of the total number of men who went away to war, 432 from Lafayette County died.
He asked the board to “Please put a stop to desecration of monuments. They’re coming after veterans everywhere.”
Steve Vassallo, a local economic developer, spoke for the same side. He says if the statue is removed, Oxford and Lafayette County could face serious economic consequences.
“Many people who travel to Oxford do so for the historical reasons,” referencing the statue, among other markers in the area.
He argued that the bulk of historical tourism comes from those born in and before the mid-‘60s and who control 75% of the wealth in the state. He asked the board to refuse the “cultural revolution” that is destroying symbols of history.
The first speaker representing those in favor of removing the statue was Don Cole, former assistant provost and assistant to the Chancellor for Multicultural Affairs at the University of Mississippi.
He began with scripture – John 8:22, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” saying, “I have personally been offended by the presence of the Confederate statue.”
“The truth remains the same…that statue is the most divisive, racial element in Lafayette County. It represents no everlasting truth, and it was based on false prophecies. It does not represent my heritage or the heritage of anyone who looks like me, and we had no input on it. That statue is there because of imbalance in power. I am here to ask you to make us free.”
Arami Harris, a University of Mississippi student studying African-American studies, said she came to Oxford because her dad, Maurice Harris, got a job as the tight ends coach for Ole Miss. She said she was told one thing before coming to Oxford – “That its citizens valued God, community and football.”
What she found, she says, was a community still indoctrinated in the Jim Crow era. She says because her father coached football, she learned, “that black lives are only valued when there’s some type of talent on display.”
“I don’t want to give my kids this,” referencing her emotional struggles. “Do away with this divisive rhetoric.”
Eddie Rester, the pastor of Oxford-University United Methodist Church, admitted that as a freshman and fraternity member at the University of Mississippi years ago, he waved the Confederate flag proudly and equated it to his heritage. It wasn’t until a series of uncomfortable conversations he had with someone his age from Memphis—whom he met at a religious convention in Champagne, Illinois—that he knew his heart changed. His friend was recruited to play basketball at Ole Miss but went to Morehouse College, a historically black men’s college in Atlanta.
“He decided he wouldn’t play under that flag,” Rester said.
Rester spoke about coming to the aid of neighbors, quoting scripture and presenting Jesus’ parables, consistently repeating, “Love does no harm.”
“The placement of the statue at the heart of our community is hurtful and painful,” he said. “How will we react, not in relation to the statue, but in relation to our neighbors?”
President of the Oxford/North Mississippi League of Women Voters, Linda Bishop, began by saying she chose to retire in Oxford because of the community’s hospitality.
However, she said the truth about the statue is often one-sided.
“Many claim the monument is about celebrating our heritage. Well, that’s the truth from a white perspective,” she said. “It wasn’t the heritage of our state, it was the heritage of the white minority.”
She said while the community was erecting this statue and others, “500 black Mississippians were lynched. That’s the truth.”
She strongly suggested to the board they focus on the feelings and wishes from the citizens they heard from on Monday night who want the statue removed.
“Let’s work for this common future,” she said as she ended. “Let’s be the change.”
Former Lafayette County Circuit Clerk Baretta Mosley said she never regretted a single day of service to her county during her tenure. As a fifth-generation Lafayette Countian, she was proud to serve. However, she often wondered—as she sat inside her office at the Lafayette County Courthouse looking out over the statue—”Why do we need a reminder in this great, beautiful city of a time of repression?”
She also said that Christians should think critically on the issue.
“We say we’re Christians, but would Christ be happy with us fighting over a stone idol?”
Longtime Oxonian Johnny Morgan ended the hour of presentations arguing that the catalyst of the Civil War was an unfair tax on cotton, not slavery. His stance remained steadfast in keeping the statue where is it because it honors “the people of Lafayette County who never came home.”
“The problem here today is not about slavery or racism. This is totally different. This is nothing but demonstrations, an extension of the left-wing radical movement going on in the United States today,” he said.
He encouraged the board to reach out to the taxpayers of Lafayette County to see what they truly think about the statue’s removal.
“The people who elected you are at home doing Bible study, getting ready for work tomorrow and doing their civic duties. They don’t feel like they need to be out protesting,” he said.
Nothing was voted on by the Board of Supervisors tonight, but president Mike Roberts said he appreciated everyone’s input and that it was “well taken.” Follow Hottytoddy.com to see what will be on the board’s next agenda for the July 6 meeting.