Confederate statue

A dozen or so armed protesters rally in support of a 101-year-old statue of a Confederate soldier at Bell County Courthouse in Belton on Sept. 16.

Photo courtesy of Rucker Preston

When I drove by the Bell County Courthouse Sept. 16 with my two boys, they asked why people were holding machine guns. “I don’t know,” I replied. “I don’t know why anyone feels like they need to show a weapon like that in public.”

It’s interesting that local news media covering two dozen or so protesters demonstrating their support for a Confederate statue in front of the Bell County Courthouse failed to note how they were armed with assault rifles, pistols with silencers and knives. It appeared these people, all of them white, were perpetuating a long history of intimidation.

When some of us concerned about the statue met with Bell County commissioners several days earlier, we never thought to go armed. Nor did we announce the meeting to the press. We met peacefully and civilly. Bell County Judge Jon Burrows listened to us respectfully. We shook hands with county officials and thanked them for their work to house evacuees in Bell County, displaced because of Hurricane Harvey. They did a great job.

Our request to the commissioners: a large, all-inclusive public hearing at a later date, so more people can attend and a more diverse array of voices can decide whether the 101-year-old statue of a Confederate soldier should either stay or kindly move on.

So did people go armed to protest the fact that we asked for a public hearing? Or did they not understand the point of our meeting with county commissioners?

Much has been said in this particular dust-up and others lately to confound the issue. We’ve heard claims that efforts to remove Confederate statues constitute “erasing history.” We’ve heard that they amount to an attack on veterans. And the old chestnut has been served up again that Texas and other Southern states didn’t wage the Civil War because of slavery. Left unsaid: the impact of silent, systemic racism, both in our past and present, and the empowering effects that symbols and titles can evoke, including statues glorifying Confederate heroes.

Erasing history? While most of us grieve the loss of all life in any war and believe every person killed should be remembered in some personal manner, any request for the relocation of the Confederate statue in our midst has nothing to do with “erasing” history. For anyone claiming otherwise, it should be known that no one in the room with county commissioners expressed such intent. In fact, our suggestion is for the statue to be respectfully transferred to the Bell County Museum, a place that preserves history, a place where people can go if they would like to see it, or South Belton Cemetery, where Confederate memorials already exist. In either setting, the statue would no longer be in the public square, at the corner of Main Street and Central Avenue in Belton. It would no longer raise questions about our loyalties, our principles and our understanding of history’s lessons.

Some critics of any relocation claim they use the statue of the Confederate soldier to teach their children about history. Does then Bell County also need a memorial that depicts the perpetrator in the infamous Luby’s massacre? Of course not. It only glorifies the actions of a person who murdered 23 innocent people and wounded dozens more. There is, however, a memorial to those who needlessly lost their lives 26 years ago in that incident in nearby Killeen.

Perhaps a proper replacement on the courthouse grounds could be a positive depiction of African Americans, remembering the thousands who never had the right to vote and were treated like property instead of human beings. If this were to be the case, history will not be “erased” and people will still be able to teach their children about history.

The statue in front of the Bell County Courthouse stands for an ugly ideology. People such as Dylann Roof still believe in this ideology and memorials such as this can actually empower some people to do awful things. It was erected in late 1916, mere months after the so-called “Waco Horror” one county over — the lynching of 17-year-old farmhand Jesse Washington just beyond the McLennan County Courthouse where an estimated 15,000 people watched as Washington, doused with coal oil, was burned and dismembered. Neither law enforcement nor anyone else in the crowd intervened. The lynching and subsequent outrage helped bring into prominence the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization.

Erected by the Bell County chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the statue seems more than coincidental in timing and placement, as if a message were being sent to impose intimidation on people of color about who held the power and who ran things. Additionally, 1916 was not long after two recorded lynchings in Bell County — Henry Gentry in Belton (1910) and Will Stanley in nearby Temple (1915). It’s perhaps telling that while a Confederate statue continues to aggravate racial tensions in Bell County, just up the road in McLennan County residents there are not only raising funds for a statue of an African-American sailor from Waco who demonstrated courage during the Pearl Harbor attack of 1941 but also pressing for a state historical marker acknowledging the lynching of Jesse Washington 25 years earlier.

I sincerely hope I am wrong and that the statue erected in front of the Bell County Courthouse was not erected to instill fear among blacks. However, when white men arm themselves with weapons of war to seemingly guard a statue because of discussions and a request for a public hearing to discuss any potential relocation of the monument, a hearing that invites all citizens of Bell County, it seems clear the statue has evolved into something more than just a history marker. Moreover, when I hear from multiple people of color that they feel the statue says “whites only,” I must take this into consideration and empathize and stand with my brothers and sisters. Not surprisingly, the Bell County chapter of the NAACP has also pressed for relocation of the Confederate soldier tribute.

Bell County has too many wonderful people to honor — people who have done far better things than take up arms for an ignoble cause. Why not instead honor any of the amazing pastors or public school educators who have graced Bell County history? Or perhaps something like the bronze work at Pepper Creek Park in Temple that depicts children playing together.

One more thing about history, specifically the absurd notion that Southerners did not fight for slavery. It is widely documented that Texas rebelled against the United States in order to “protect the institution of negro slavery.” The history of the Southern states is well-recorded. The statue’s inscription does not press us to not repeat the past; rather, it memorializes those who fought and died as “heroes”… the same people who fought against the United States, who fought to protect the institution of slavery and who fought to protect the financial interests of slaveholders. This ideology was one of oppression, allowing white men in power to make money off the backs of others because of the color of their skin.

For those who disagree, I respect the fact that you have a different opinion. I invite you to leave your rifles, knives, pistols and fists at home and come to the public hearing, if county commissioners grant one, so that you, along with everyone else in Bell County, can share your voices in a civilized manner.

Rucker Preston is executive director of the Texas Christian Community Development Network and a faculty member of Baylor University’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work.