It was more awkward than I had imagined—as a white guy—to stand in the middle of a busy intersection to take a photograph of the Confederate statue. It was the reason we had come to town, to have conversations about monuments and race. But somehow, the moment I raised my camera, I felt conspicuous.
It’s the same feeling I had when I pulled over in my pickup truck in Idaho and stepped out to ask the woman feeding her chickens if she knew the way to the former site of the Aryan Nation compound.
The same sense I had when I took pictures of the bullet holes in the sign pointing to the site where Emmett Till’s body was found on the banks of the Tallahatchie River after he was lynched.
I don’t like to be misunderstood, and there was every chance in each of those situations that people might look at me and misinterpret why I was there. But there was work to do and you can’t wear a sign that announces your intentions.
Oxford, Mississippi has two Confederate statues. One located in front of the county courthouse in the middle of the town square. Enter Oxford from the south on Lamar Boulevard and it’s the first thing that greets you as you arrive at the center of town.
The second is on the campus of the University of Mississippi. That one had been located at the heart of the university until last year when it was moved to a less prominent site, near a historic Confederate cemetery on campus.
The statue on the courthouse lawn remains in place. There were calls to relocate it as a part of a national movement after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis last year. The county board of supervisors—five white men—voted unanimously to leave it in place.
Like all stories, this one is complicated. There is some thought that the city actually owns the land under the statue. If that’s the case, the more diverse city leadership would be more likely to relocate it. The same county board who voted to keep the Confederate statue has also agreed to put in place a marker on the courthouse grounds commemorating the seven documented victims of lynching in the county.
The University’s monument was relocated to the edge of the Confederate cemetery, but the new location was within view of the football team’s practice field and some players refused to practice under its gaze. So now the university has erected a large green tarp to hide the statue from that view.
Last year, Mississippi became the final state in the union to officially remove Confederate imagery from their flag. So on some level, there is an acknowledgement of the difficult history, but symbols and iconography remain in large and small ways.
I understand the argument that outsiders don’t need to decide local issues, so it was with that sense of humility that we requested a permit to set up a studio on the courthouse lawn with the help of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.
We were here to listen. And learn. For two days, we set up our studio a few feet away from the Confederate monument and asked people, “What does this statue mean to you?”
The Winter Institute shared news of the studio sessions in their circles. I had connections at the University through various departments who shared in their networks as well. A few random people walking by asked what we were doing and chose to participate.
In the end, 36 people decided to answer our question and get their photo taken. One man said the statue didn’t bother him. The rest said it should be relocated. That doesn’t mean that the opposing position doesn’t exist in town, it just means that nobody with that perspective participated. The series is powerful, but I recognize it would be more complete with the opposing viewpoint as well.
I’d like to try again, though there won’t be time on this trip. Perhaps we could promote it differently. One person commented that those who want it to stay in place don’t need to voice their opinion because currently their perspective and the status quo have the ear of the county leadership. There is science that suggests conservative voices don’t feel welcome in conversations about social justice and perhaps people felt they wouldn’t be treated fairly in our process.
Our natural process is rooted in welcoming all voices, but there are times in the past where that wide net has not gathered the broad range of perspectives we would like, so then we need to be more intentional about how we ask. I’m going to think on that, and I’d welcome your input as well.
It’s interesting to note that out of the 36 participants, nobody suggested destroying the statue. They said relocate it. Put it somewhere else. Just not at the center of our town.
I’m still working on the production of the images and stories. If the weather cooperates, we will do a public projection Tuesday evening, and I’ll post them all on our blog and social media later in the week.
What does this statue mean to you?