One of Mississippi’s most impressive and elaborate Confederate monuments, the Mississippi Confederate Monument, has been looking out over Greenwood’s courthouse. Greenwood is a Black-majority community with a history full of civil rights protests. Protesters have demonstrated at the base of the towering pillar with six Confederate figures — some residents demanding removal amid a racial reckoning across the country, others advocating for the statue’s protection as a piece of history.
After years of debate, a new Greenwood statue has been erected. It is one of Emmett, the Black 14 year-old boy who was brutally beat and shot by white men in 1955, just 10 miles from Greenwood. The likeness of Till, whose death is still under federal investigation, will be one of only a handful of statues of African Americans in Mississippi, where dozens of Confederate monuments still dot the landscape at courthouses, town squares and other prominent locations.
Greenwood is just one of many towns and cities across the country that are grappling with difficult, costly questions. What monuments should be erected in their honor to reflect the community?
Across Mississippi, multiple places have voted to remove monuments; the few that have followed through found it costly, with a $1 million bill at the University of Mississippi. A truck was used to transport Gen. Robert E. Lee, an enormous figure from Virginia, away from Charlottesville. This happened nearly four years after the deadly and racist rally. Dozens of Confederate statues fell across the country during the 2020 protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis — many in liberal-leaning urban centers, while those in rural or conservative places stood.
However, far fewer cities have made plans to build new monuments or tributes.
As in many other places, Greenwood has seen slow change.
Leflore County Board of Supervisors voted in June 2020 to remove the Confederate statue that was erected by the Varina Davis Chapter United Daughters of Confederacy in 1913. Four of the five members of the board are Black. They decided that the monument be removed, whose most prominent figure was former Mississippi Governor. Civil War Gen. Benjamin G. Humphreys and the Civil Rights Movement, that it not be replaced with any piece honoring other county histories.
After years of discussion over what to do about the monument, a Black teacher and his father Troy Brown Jr. and Troy Brown Sr. began petitioning for its removal in 2017. Initial plans by the county were to remove the Confederate statue from the courthouse and to build a civil rights memorial — likely to include Till — on the courthouse grounds to “create balance.”
However, community members continued to press for its removal. The Black county board members voted 4-0 in favor of removing the statue. Sam Abraham, the only member of the white board, was absent from the meeting. Later, he told the Greenwood Commonwealth newspaper that he would vote to retain the Confederate statue.
Reginald Moore, a board member, voted for the removal of the monument. He said it “serves a symbol of intimidation and fear of treason,” domestic terrorism, slavery, murder, and treason.
Robert Collins, a member of the Board, stated that the statue did not bother him but that it should be removed if it causes pain for others. Collins was a young boy at the time Till was murdered. He recalled the terror it sparked in the Black community, and said that it was something the community shouldn’t forget. He was clear in his belief that another monument should not be built to replace it, regardless its intent or meaning.
He said, “The courthouse is the property of the people in Leflore County.” “If we are going to remove that monument we shouldn’t place any monument on the property Leflore County.”
The Confederate statue still stands. However, the removal process was slowed down by bureaucracy and there is no plan.
The Associated Press called the board members but they did not respond to their inquiries about an update. Michael Morris, spokesperson for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, said Joyce Chiles, county attorney, reached out to them in November and that they have not heard back from her since.
Democratic state senator David Jordan of Greenwood rekindled the conversation about Till’s statue in the city that is 13,500. He was one of the few locals who witnessed Till’s murder trial.
Jordan stated that there are many heroes who need to be honored and suggested that cities should plan for new monuments to replace the Confederate ones. It’s about seeking justice for the many people who have been mistreated.
Jordan, a freshman at a historically-black college near Sumner, was just starting college when Till was killed. Jordan and three of his friends pooled their funds to purchase enough gasoline at 25 cents per gallon to transport them to Sumner for the trial. Jordan recalled seeing defendants sipping Coca-Cola in a hot courtroom, and laughing with their children and wives — clearly they didn’t fear being convicted.
Jordan, now 88 years old, stated that they were heroes and the most respected people. Many people believed they did the right thing by killing him. They believed Emmett Till was not right for the job.
Till was visiting family in Mississippi from Chicago. At a grocery store, he was accused of making sexual advances and whistling at Carolyn Bryant, 21 years old. Roy Bryant, her husband, and J.W. Bryant, his half-brother, abducted Till from his great-uncle’s home. Milam robbed Till at gunpoint from the home of his great-uncle.
Till’s charred body was later pulled from the Tallahatchie River. This river is the same one that claimed the Union merchant ship The Star of the West in the Civil War, 90 years ago. Greenwood’s monument has the pilot wheel inscribed on one side.
Images of Till’s open casket and mutilated body gave light to the deep racial hatred that existed in the Deep South. They also inspired civil rights campaigns. Bryant and Milam were both acquitted. However, they later admitted to the crime in an interview with a magazine. Both are now deceased.
Sen. Jordan stated that it would be poetic justice to place the Till statue in front the courthouse. This is the exact spot where dogs were used to intimidate Black voters trying to register to vote in a city with racist Citizens’ Councils.
Jordan stated, “If we can demonstrate that change can occur here, it could happen anywhere.”
The county board refused to budge. Collins stated in April that the Till statue being allowed on the courthouse lawn would violate the “double standard”.
“To move one statue and put up another, I wouldn’t be representing all of the people I’m supposed to be representing,” Collins, who is Black, stated during a board meeting.
Jordan felt hurt by this decision, especially considering that the Confederate statue hadn’t moved yet.
He said, “I told them to let the Emmett Till statue be there for 100 year, then you can move it.” It would then be balanced. I don’t get ‘double-standard’. Please give me equal time.”
The council voted unanimously late last month in favor of the Till statue being erected on the courthouse lawn. The statue will be erected in a park about a half mile from the courthouse and Confederate monument. Jordan stated that the Till tribute will be paid at least partially with $150,000 from a bond law from the state legislature. He plans to have the bronze statue stand 9 feet tall.
He is also optimistic about the area. The park is located near the railroad tracks which once divided where Black and White residents lived and worked in the racially segregated Greenwood. Greenwood Jordan was familiar with the area growing up. He expressed hope that the statue will bring unity to the community.
Residents on both sides are disappointed by the lack of a plan from officials.
Melissa Earnest, a white resident, grew up in Drew and is interested in seeing progress toward removal and more monuments to civil right figures whose stories have been overlooked.
She said, “It’s an indication of progress.”
Larry McCluney stated that he views the statue as a tribute for Confederate soldiers who lost their lives on the battlefield. He supports the Till statue, even at the courthouse, as long as it is Confederate.
McCluney said, “It’s exactly the same thing if you went out to the cemetery and knocked one of your relatives’ heads over,” McCluney, who is a history teacher and commander in chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. This organization, which includes 30,000 members, serves male descendants of Confederate veteran veterans. “That’s what people feel about these matters: You are taking away the only thing that I have as a family member to remember my ancestors.
Brown Sr. was one of the residents who petitioned to have Greenwood removed. He said that Greenwood must show the world what they stand for.
Brown stated, “I don’t think we should not talk about the Confederacy. But we certainly shouldn’t celebrate it in the sense that we have the statue looking over our town, as though it were something we’re proud off.” “That young boy’s story — that’s a tale worth telling.”