Push to remove Confederate statues stalls in rural America
CLINTON, La. (AP) — The statue of the anonymous Confederate soldier has stood in front of the white-columned East Feliciana Parish courthouse for more than a century, leaning on his rifle as he looks down on trucks hauling timber and residents visiting the bank across the street.
It withstood an attempt to remove it in 2016. The local doctor who asked the southeast Louisiana parish to move it lost two friends in the controversy, but the statue stayed. In 2018, a Black man who was a defendant in a trial petitioned to have his case moved, saying the statue was a symbol of racism. He lost that fight, and the statue stood.
Now, as protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis focus attention on the hundreds of Confederate statues still standing across the Southern landscape, officials in the rural parish of roughly 20,000 people have voted 5-3 to leave the statue where it is.
In recent weeks, dozens of Confederate statues have fallen across the country — often in more liberal-leaning urban centers. But in many smaller places like Clinton, the effort to remove markers that many view as racist relics has stalled or has yet to arrive.
John Sanders, a Black businessman and minister in Clinton, wants the statue removed and thought the national spotlight on the issue presented a slight chance that parish officials would vote to move it. But if not now, he thinks it will happen — some day.
“I think that it has to come up again. It’s not a matter of ‘if.' It has to come up again, and the reason I say that is that there is no way that we can sit around and be on the wrong side of history,” he said.
At least 63 Confederate statues, monuments or markers have been removed from public land across the country since Floyd’s death on May 25, making 2020 one of the busiest years yet for removals, according to an Associated Press tally. Most were removed by government officials, though protesters have toppled some.
All but eight have come down in cities or metropolitan areas larger than 50,000 people. Most of the areas lean politically left, with 41 of the monuments removed in counties or equivalent areas that voted Democratic in the 2016 presidential election.
AP's exclusive tally verified removals through government announcements, AP news coverage and other sources, then analyzed them based on census data and voting patterns. Still, in a sign that the removal movement might be spreading, local governments in several less populous areas of Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina have recently approved removals but not yet taken down the monuments.
The sheer number of Confederate monuments still standing shows the enormous task for those seeking removals: More than 700 remain on public land, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Laws that protect the monuments in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee are slowing efforts. Virginia this year amended a similar law to let local governments take statues down.
“It’s unclear how long this will continue, whether this is going to be a full movement that really leads to a cascade effect where more and more are removed,” said Adam Domby, a College of Charleston historian who wrote “The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory."
Domby said it would take far more removals in politically conservative areas to convince him there’s been a national shift in support of removing Confederate monuments. Despite North Carolina's state law that all but prohibits permanent removals, its Democratic governor cited a public-safety exemption to remove several Confederate monuments at the state Capitol in Raleigh after protesters ripped two statues down. Some local officials also invoked safety as they removed monuments in several cities; at least 17 have come down statewide since Floyd’s death.
Yet in Republican-leaning Alamance County, the county manager’s public safety argument for removing a statue near the courthouse was rebuffed when most members of the county commission said publicly they were legally unable — or simply unwilling — to take it down. North Carolina still has at least 69 monuments on public land. Of those, 56 are in counties that voted for President Donald Trump in 2016; 52 are in towns of fewer than 20,000, the AP tally shows.
In Virginia, Richmond’s mayor removed massive statues in the Confederacy’s former capital, headlining a tally of at least a dozen monuments removed from public land statewide since Floyd’s death. But a different scenario is unfolding in Virginia's rural Franklin County. Most residents who spoke Tuesday at a Board of Supervisors meeting urged the swift removal of a Confederate statue from the county courthouse. Instead, the board voted to delay the decision by putting a non-binding referendum on relocating the statue to voters in the Republican-leaning, majority-white county. The final decision will still lie with the board after the November election.
Ruby Penn, who frequently drives past a Confederate flag flying on private property near her home, said living in Franklin County means living under constant symbols of racism. Penn and her sister, Penny Blue, the only person of color on the county School Board, said they didn’t expect they’d still be fighting for equality 50 years after the civil rights era, this time urging the monument's removal.
“The people in Rocky Mount are looking for every excuse to keep it there,” Penn said. In Louisiana, a little over 2,000 people signed a petition to remove Confederate monuments in front of the East Feliciana Parish courthouse and the one in neighboring West Feliciana Parish.
In a sometimes heated meeting about a week before the final vote, LaRhonda George said Confederate statues shouldn’t be displayed at a building where people of “any race are supposed to go seek justice.” She said if people want to honor ancestors, they should move the statue to the town's Confederate cemetery.
Supporters said removing it would wipe away a memorial to their ancestors, along with parish history. “This is only for memorial for those that lost their lives, regardless of what it was for,” Deanna Fontenot said. "They lost their lives.”
Drew reported from Durham, North Carolina. Associated Press writers Sarah Blake Morgan in Rocky Mount, Virginia, and Sarah Rankin in Richmond, Virginia, contributed.