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The Power of Community: Miss. county becomes state’s first to relocate a Confederate monument

A Confederate monument that stood outside of the Lowndes County Courthouse for more than 100 years recently became the first monument of its kind to be relocated by a Mississippi county.

The monument, erected in 1912 during the height of Jim Crow-era segregation, celebrates the “heroes” of the Confederacy “who nobly dared life” and seeks to memorialize their “principles of right.” It was relocated May 23. The successful effort also appears to have sparked a greater effort to build Black political power.

However, the path to victory took almost a year and did not follow a straight line. On June 15, 2020, the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors considered the first motion to relocate the monument to Friendship Cemetery, a cemetery where both Confederate and Union soldiers are buried. The motion failed by a vote of 2 to 3, with board members voting along racial lines.

After the vote, a white supervisor, Board President Harry Sanders, made comments to a Columbus, Mississippi, newspaper that enflamed locals. Sanders said Black people have struggled to assimilate into society because of slavery. However, rather than acknowledging the continuing systemic barriers for Black equality, Sanders relied on outdated rhetoric rather than a solution.

These comments were a catalyst for citizens of Columbus, the county seat for Lowndes County, who organized several protests calling for an end to systemic racism and the removal of the monument.  After the Mississippi Legislature voted in late June 2020 to remove the Confederate battle emblem, which had been featured on the state’s flag for 126 years, the movement gained more steam.

In a board meeting that same month, Harry Sanders resigned as board president. When the board of supervisors reconvened on July 6, it voted unanimously to relocate the monument to Friendship Cemetery. Recalling the excitement after the vote, Supervisor Leroy Brooks, a Black board member, said, “Black people were glad it was moved, not so much for the monument itself but because they engaged in the process and helped change something.”

Under Mississippi law, it is not enough for a local government to approve the relocation of a Confederate monument. The Department of Archives and History must also approve the change. On Oct. 30, nearly four months after the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors made its decision, the board of the Department of Archives and History unanimously approved a permit for the monument to be moved from the county courthouse to the local cemetery.

Ten months after the board of supervisor’s historic vote employees of Columbus Marble Works removed the monument from courthouse property.

This effort has become about more than the removal of a monument. Local leaders are looking for opportunities to both celebrate the victory and teach communities and individuals how to harness political power. Brooks and State Rep. Kabir Karriem have begun planning community events aimed at developing Black political leadership.

“Even in many Black majority communities, whites hold political leadership because they take advantage of Black political inexperience,” Brooks said. He wants to use this moment to “develop young Black leadership.”

Karriem agreed.

“This is a teachable moment,” he said. “We can take a negative symbol and make it something positive.”

Brandon Jones is policy director for the SPLC Action Fund in Mississippi.

Photo at top: The Confederate monument that stood on the Lowndes County Courthouse lawn in Columbus, Miss. (Claire Hassler/The Commercial Dispatch, via AP)