Following an intense discussion with references to the Nazi swastika, the flag of the terrorist group Isis and the U.S. Constitution, people carrying Confederate battle flags inside the Bulloch County Commission meeting room Tuesday were asked to leave after a unanimous vote. Commissioners, however, took no action regarding a petition to remove a Confederate soldier memorial from the county courthouse square.
A standing-room only crowd of about 100 inside Commission chambers and another 30 in the hallway attended the regular meeting of the commission, mostly because of a public forum regarding a petition requesting the removal of the statue of a Confederate soldier that stands on the southwestern corner of the courthouse square.
However, the Confederate battle flag was the highly-charged main topic before discussion turned to the statue.
A number of memorial supporters arrived in trucks, cars and on motorcycles bearing Confederate flags, having rallied at Statesboro’s Kmart and traveled to the Bulloch County Annex for the meeting. Several carried the flags inside County Commission chambers.
James Major Woodall, a 21-year-old Georgia Southern University senior majoring in political science, was the only person listed on the agenda to speak, but several others took advantage of a public comments session to respond to Woodall’s request to remove the statue.
He started a petition that has more than 770 signatures asking the statue be removed and replaced with something that “represents all” races and cultures of Bulloch County.
The Confederate flag, which is the subject of renewed debate after Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man, shot and killed nine members of a black church in Charleston, was not the listed topic of discussion.
But impassioned opening remarks by Statesboro attorney Francys Johnson, president of the Georgia chapter of the NAACP, called for removal of the flag he called “the Southern swastika.”
His remarks brought an angry rumble of protest from several in the crowd, and conversation became heated as Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch, Commission Chairman Garrett Nevil and county attorney Jeff Akins discussed county ordinances addressing proper behavior during county commission meetings.
Johnson said the flag’s presence was disruptive to the meeting. Akins countered by saying to ban the flag from the room could pose a violation of First Amendment rights. Johnson told commissioners to allow the flag’s presence during the meeting would “set a precedent” for others bringing in “Isis flags or banners promoting abortion rights.”
After discussing the matter briefly, Commissioner Anthony Simmons called for a vote, saying he understood how Woodall would feel intimidated by the flags behind the podium. Commissioners voted to have the Confederate flags removed from the room, so as not to “start a precedent” for others who may bring in symbols that offend some.
Nevil had to call the crowd to order several times as people voiced anger and support of the commission’s decision, but those bearing the flags quietly left the room to stand outside in the hallway with others who could not find spots in the overcrowded room.
As he spoke, Woodall said the Confederate soldier statue “no longer, if it ever did, stands for the community as a whole.”
Defending the statue
The statue, carved from Italian marble, has stood for 106 years after being placed there by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Mike Mull, member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans Ogeechee Rifles Camp 941, said his group spent $20,000 in 2013 to restore the statue, and that it would cost $175,000 to move.
Woodall said the flag was “used by violent extremists and white supremacists long before Dylann Roof.” He said the statue, to him and other black people, represents beatings, mob killings and abuse of blacks, before and after slavery was abolished.
He said people “are intimidated and fearful” when they see the statue and the Confederate battle flag displayed.
Several others in the crowd lined up to take turns speaking either in support or protest of the statue being moved.
Mull cited O.C.G.A. (Official Code of Georgia Annotated) 50-3-1 (2) which he said states it is against the law to tamper with memorials.
The law states, in part, “No publicly owned monument or memorial erected, constructed, created, or maintained on the public property of this state or its agencies, departments, authorities, or instrumentalities in honor of the military service of any past or present military personnel of this state, the United States of America or the several states thereof, or the Confederate States of America or the several states thereof shall be relocated, removed, concealed, obscured, or altered in any fashion; provided, however, that appropriate measures for the preservation, protection, and interpretation of such monuments or memorials shall not be prohibited.”
He said “I think the law is profoundly clear - the Sons of Confederate Veterans will not compromise on this issue.”
John Nwosu, a GSU student, said “I think it is amazing how powerful a symbol can be. It’s amazing how we can each make different meanings of the same thing.” He urged the crowd to listen to what the other side is saying. He supported moving the statue.
Jimmy Hayes said he wants the statue to stay, and spoke of the disparity between races regarding political correctness.
“I understand we have to get along, but that goes both ways,” he said. “Think about all the things we can’t say. Can you tell a joke about a black man? No, but you can tell a joke about me, an old farmer.”
Jonathan McCollar spoke next, calling for people to think about the future, and make changes that will make the future better. “We need to look for a reasonable, sensible compromise.”
Dr. Ruth Green told the crowd “Racism is what you make it. Self-esteem is not given to anybody – you have to earn it. Nobody owes you anything.” She said as a Southern citizen she supports keeping the statue as it is. “The war between the North and South was not all about slavery, but that is what we hear,” she continued. “But many who fought for the South were not slave owners.”
Another GSU student, Stanley Tomas, said “We do not understand each other.” To see the Confederate flag and the statue is “a slap in the face” to him and he supports moving the statue.
Several others spoke in support of or against the statue, and the commission allowed everyone to speak before ending the two-hour public forum and continued with the meeting’s regular agenda.
No action on the statue was taken.
Holi Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.