Mississippi update

Thanks to Keith Gaskin for this photo.

Last weekend a friend texted me a photo of three statues on the back of a flatbed truck in Columbus, Mississippi. It was the start of relocating a 32-foot tall Confederate statue from in front of the Lowndes County Courthouse to a new site across town in Friendship Cemetery, where more than 2,000 Confederate soldiers are buried beside 100 or so Union soldiers.

It’s interesting to see in his photo, the new Mississippi state flag as well, that just started flying this year after the state became the final one in the Union to eliminate Confederate imagery.

I visited the statue last month, as well as the new site that was being prepared at the cemetery. The cemetery has an interesting history. Columbus was the site of a military hospital during the Civil War, with a particularly busy run after the Battle of Shiloh.

After the war, a group of women from Columbus put flowers on the markers of all the fallen soldiers, both Confederate and Union, an act of commemoration that inspired Francis Miles Finch to compose the poem The Blue and The Gray that was published in The Atlantic in 1967. Scroll to the bottom of this post to read the poem.

Although several towns across the country lay claim to the title, many see that gesture of decorating all the graves in Columbus as the beginnings of what eventually became known as Memorial Day.

So as I watched the news yesterday, one year after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, I think of this statue coming down. I think of more eyes opening to the pain that Confederate imagery can cause others. I think of attitudes shifting. I think of the power of people lifting their voices to demand change.

Thanks to Keith Gaskin for this photo.

A couple hours to the north, Oxford Mississippi is still trying to relocate its statue from the courthouse lawn. That’s where we set up our studio and asked people what the statue meant to them. Here’s what we heard. The video at the link contains 100% of the stories we gathered over two days.

Monday night I led a workshop for a church about issues of race. We played this video, and we talked about it. People wondered how 35 of the 36 people who showed up said they wanted to remove it. Surely, if you surveyed the town, that percentage wouldn’t hold up and we wondered about that.

Maybe we circulated the invitation in an echo chamber. We tried to cast a broad net, but maybe our announcement only got shared in certain circles, all with the same views. Maybe people viewed the project as a progressive effort and if they wanted to leave the statue standing, felt like their view wouldn’t be welcome. Maybe those who felt it should stay standing believed they were winning and the status quo would offer enough momentum to keep it there. Maybe they didn’t need to say anything. Or maybe they felt the defenses and justifications that they offered didn’t really hold up.

In any regard, there were people who stopped by who thought the statue should stay. They just didn’t want to go on camera and say so publicly. I heard a lot of “heritage and tradition.” I heard people say that all the folks who want it moved are out of town troublemakers. But 85% of the people who participated in the project had roots in Columbus that went back years, if not generations. I heard people say, “they want to erase history,” but the folks I interviewed—for the most part—didn’t advocate destroying the statue. They just wanted it moved across town to a new location, so it didn’t stand at the center of the community, in front of the institution that is supposed to uphold justice for all.

It’s also important to point out that all of the conversations were civil and respectful, whether people wanted the statue to stay or come down.

For Monday’s workshop, we watched the video and in it, one man made this powerful statement: “This statue honors and was established and defended by my ancestors. It is opposed by me. It will be removed by my children.”

The quote resonated with me. It acknowledges the slow pace of change, but the unrelenting determination of justice. I was grateful for it. But one young person in the workshop heard it differently.

“Why do we have to wait?” she asked.

Why, indeed. It’s a lot of pressure to leave on them. After all, they didn’t make this mess, and they seem to have a long list of messes to tend to.

You hear it all the time…thank goodness the younger generations will be able to turn the tide. They get it. They are not encumbered by the same history. The same pressures. The same baggage. They are going to do well and they will fix this thing.

But guess what? We don’t have to wait. We don’t have to kick the can down the road to them. We don’t have to pass along the environment, the economy, and the stain of ugly history and wait for them to set it right. I have no doubt that they can do it. I am inspired every day by the young folks I meet. I’m just saying it’s a bit of a dodge to leave it all to them and there’s no reason we can’t be a part of the solution.

Let’s take a close look at my demographic…the ones who aren’t quite so youthful but still have some time left on this earth. We have resources. We have experience. We have connections. We have influence. Let’s go ahead and use it.

Lead. Mentor. Advocate. Make change.

When you hit a certain age, you start becoming very aware of your mortality. If you want to do something, you better get to work and do it soon, or the opportunity might just slip away. You want to leave a legacy? How about a legacy of a world that works better for everyone? That sounds pretty good to me.

The Blue And The Gray
Francis Miles Finch (1827-1907)

By the flow of the inland river,
    Whence the fleets of iron have fled,
Where the blades of the grave-grass quiver,
    Asleep are the ranks of the dead:
        Under the sod and the dew,
            Waiting the judgment-day;
        Under the one, the Blue,
            Under the other, the Gray

These in the robings of glory,
    Those in the gloom of defeat,
All with the battle-blood gory,
    In the dusk of eternity meet:
        Under the sod and the dew,
            Waiting the judgement-day
        Under the laurel, the Blue,
            Under the willow, the Gray.

From the silence of sorrowful hours
    The desolate mourners go,
Lovingly laden with flowers
    Alike for the friend and the foe;
        Under the sod and the dew,
            Waiting the judgement-day;
        Under the roses, the Blue,
            Under the lilies, the Gray.

So with an equal splendor,
    The morning sun-rays fall,
With a touch impartially tender,
    On the blossoms blooming for all:
        Under the sod and the dew,
            Waiting the judgment-day;
        Broidered with gold, the Blue,
            Mellowed with gold, the Gray.

So, when the summer calleth,
    On forest and field of grain,
With an equal murmur falleth
    The cooling drip of the rain:
        Under the sod and the dew,
            Waiting the judgment -day,
        Wet with the rain, the Blue
            Wet with the rain, the Gray.

Sadly, but not with upbraiding,
    The generous deed was done,
In the storm of the years that are fading
    No braver battle was won:
        Under the sod and the dew,
            Waiting the judgment-day;
        Under the blossoms, the Blue,
            Under the garlands, the Gray
.

No more shall the war cry sever,
    Or the winding rivers be red;
They banish our anger forever
    When they laurel the graves of our dead!
        Under the sod and the dew,
            Waiting the judgment-day,
        Love and tears for the Blue,
            Tears and love for the Gray.

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