'We Always Knew What It Stood For': Small Texas Town Torn Over Its Confederate Statue More than 60 monuments that celebrate the Confederacy and its military men have come down in cities all across America. But more than 1,700 remain, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
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'We Always Knew What It Stood For': Small Texas Town Torn Over Its Confederate Statue

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'We Always Knew What It Stood For': Small Texas Town Torn Over Its Confederate Statue

'We Always Knew What It Stood For': Small Texas Town Torn Over Its Confederate Statue

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Since George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, Confederate statues have been taken down in lots of cities. Hundreds of them are still up, though. Some towns are very protective of these monuments. Here's John Burnett from one of those towns in East Texas.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The figure of a Confederate soldier holding a rifle has gazed down from his pedestal in front of the Harrison County Courthouse for 114 years. The marble statue was a gift, like hundreds of others across the South, from the United Daughters of the Confederacy. They are memorials to the war dead and, historians say, monuments to white supremacy and Jim Crow laws.

DEMETRIA MCFARLAND: Well, growing up, we always knew that it was here on the courthouse square. We always knew what it stood for. It was just kind of one of those taboo things, you know?

BURNETT: Demetria McFarland is the implacable fifth-grade teacher and community activist who's spearheading the campaign to relocate the statue. She wears a T-shirt that says 8:46, I can't breathe, referring to George Floyd's last words and the time it took for a policeman's knee to asphyxiate him. At the end of a sweltering day, McFarland sits on a wall beside the courthouse looking up at the stoic soldier.

MCFARLAND: We're not asking them to destroy the statue. We're asking them to remove it. I no longer want to have my taxpayer dollars keeping this symbol of hate and racism erected here on the courthouse grounds.

BURNETT: Suddenly, McFarland notices a cream-colored SUV parked at a distance. The driver is taking pictures of us.

MCFARLAND: Hold on. Did you need to say something to me, young lady?

BURNETT: McFarland trots over to the SUV to confront the picture taker. Her name is Sandy Smith. And she's part of the Save Our Statue counter-movement. A cut-out of Donald Trump's head dangles from her rearview mirror. McFarland stands at her open window. Smith stays in her car.

SANDY SMITH: I'm just doing my thing. I do this every evening actually. I drive by to make sure it's OK because as much as that is a representative of what you hate...

MCFARLAND: No, I don't hate anything. I just know what it stands for.

SMITH: ...But you don't necessarily know what it stands for. It also stands for those memories of those children that didn't come back because they fought for something that they didn't have a choice not to fight for. And they were sharecroppers' children. Do you understand that?

MCFARLAND: But I know that they don't represent who I am, which is a young Black person.

SMITH: OK, but that represents...

BURNETT: This exchange in the courthouse parking lot is one of the more civil ones. Things have gotten ugly in Marshall of late. There have been threats, epithets and guns displayed. Zephaniah Timmins is the county's lone Black commissioner. And he supports the statue's removal. He sits in his office in the courthouse.

ZEPHANIAH TIMMINS: I've tried to keep my composure about things. I've been called the N-word. I've been called a Sambo, Uncle Tom. But I have thick skin. You have to call me something different. And I'll probably laugh at that, too (laughter), you know?

BURNETT: The city of Marshall, tucked in the piney woods of northeast Texas, has 25,000 people, about equal Blacks and whites. It is the seat of Harrison County, which grew rich from slave labor and king cotton. After Texas seceded, Marshall became an important Confederate stronghold west of the Mississippi as a supply hub and military infirmary.

Atrocities continued after the war. During one infamous lynching in 1903, a newspaper account at the time said the declaration is made that every Negro will be driven from Marshall. The statue was unveiled three years later. And as recently as 2013, the Klan recruited here. Today, the city touts its annual Christmas lights festival and its proximity to beautiful Caddo Lake. The historic courthouse, together with the statue, are listed as a State Antiquities Landmark. For weeks, citizens have been coming before the commissioner's court to make their cases for and against moving the statue.

LEIGH ANN BUCHANAN: The argument for removal is a passionate yet misguided one. Our focus must be the preservation of our history, honoring the young men, sons, husbands and fathers lost in the Civil War.

BURNETT: That's a resident named Leigh Ann Buchanan. The commissioners listen behind their desks in an ornate, high ceiling courtroom that looks like the set from "To Kill A Mockingbird." Now the defendant is the statue of the Confederate rifleman. Next to speak is Herman Felton, president of local Wiley College. Its legendary debate team is where the civil rights fighter James Farmer Jr. got his start.

HERMAN FELTON: Today, I advocate for the removal of the statue. The tributes to a Confederate soldier or general of a treasonous army have no place in our society. And quite frankly, it's humiliating to be here when we all know the damage done to Black Americans under the auspices of the Confederacy.

BURNETT: The commissioner's court is set to vote on the fate of the statue later this month as the tide is shifting across the land. Next door in Caddo Parish, just across the state line in Shreveport, La., officials recently agreed to remove an even larger Confederate statue from their courthouse. And last month, the U.S. House voted to remove all Confederate statues from the Capitol building.

BILL ELLIOTT: We ain't won anywhere. I'll be honest with you. We ain't won anywhere.

BURNETT: Bill Elliott is commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Marshall and a former constable. He meets me in the city cemetery where Confederate flags flutter over dozens of graves of fallen soldiers. Statue opponents have proposed that the cemetery is the logical place to relocate the monument. Elliott sounds resigned.

ELLIOTT: We're the South. We're Southern gentlemen. Let's talk this out. If it's got to be moved, we're for working with everybody. We just want it be done right and proper. We want it to go somewhere that's going to be safe. We want it somewhere so people can come see it.

BURNETT: But if the county decides to move the statue and the State Historical Commission, which has the final say, approves, will that really change anything? There are skeptics, even in the Black community. I caught up with Kendrick Brazzell, the owner of the Soul Palace restaurant in Marshall, as he was rushing out plates of fried catfish and hush puppies for curbside customers.

KENDRICK BRAZZELL: Well, it don't really mean nothing if it come down. But if it come down and it mean people going to change, I'm with it. But other than that, it's just a statue.

BURNETT: To Brazzell, the removal of the Confederate statue is only a symbolic act unless it's followed up with the real work of improving race relations in his city. John Burnett, NPR News, Marshall, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN SCOTT ATUNDE ADJUAH'S "PERSPECTIVES")

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