For 106 years, the Confederate soldier made of marble has stood, looking out from the Bulloch County Courthouse grounds, his rifle resting vertical in front of him.
In the wake of the June 17 mass murder of nine people at a black church in Charleston, SC, a Georgia Southern University student is mounting an online petition to have the monument removed to another location. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, meanwhile, is countering with an in-person petition drive to keep the monument where it is.
James “Major” Woodall, a GSU senior majoring in political science and minoring in religion, started the petition on change.org to remove the statue. As of Saturday afternoon, the page counted 655 signers.
“The concern is not that the monument represents the Confederate heritage, but the concern is that it stands on government property here,” Woodall said in an interview. “It’s in front of the courthouse, and when you have something like that, with a negative connotation to our people in front of the courthouse, for those who have that negative connotation, many of those people are in and out of the courthouse every day.”
Past president of the Georgia Southern University Chapter of the NAACP, Woodall, 21, is also a sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve. He said he is very respectful toward symbols representing heritage, courage and service.
But given that people of color face disproportionate involvement with the criminal justice system, the statue’s courthouse presence carries “that negative connotation and the history that is so entrenched in slavery and racism, discrimination and prejudice and hatred,” Woodall said.
Monument dedicated in 1909
The monument was dedicated April 26, 1909. “In Memory of the Confederate Soldiers, 1861-1865” is one of the inscriptions around its base. The Statesboro Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy started the drive to raise money in early summer 1908, according to an article in “Statesboro: A Century of Progress: 1866-1966.”
“We’re not trying to have it destroyed or disrespected or desecrated or anything like that,” Woodall said. “We don’t want to have it just removed. We want it placed where it can be respected and honored the way it should be, the way it deserves to be, but at the same time to have something on that ground that represents all people.”
His petition grew out of a discussion on Facebook.
Many similar discussions have followed the shooting of 10 people, nine of whom died, at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white man charged with the shootings, had posed with Confederate flags on a white supremacist website and posted a racist manifesto. Along with calls to remove Confederate flags from public places have come decisions by major retailers to no longer sell Confederate themed merchandise, and calls to remove monuments from public spaces, including the statues of Confederate leaders at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Bulloch County’s monument could be moved to museum or a memorial site on private property with public access, Woodall suggested. A public museum would be acceptable because it would not carry the same connotations as the courthouse, he said.
People have suggested various replacements for the monument.
One symbol Woodall suggests is a bald eagle. This would represent Georgia Southern University locally but also the United States “and the opportunity to soar to greatness and soar to freedom and justice for all people,” he said.
Woodall’s petition is directed to the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners. That’s also where the Sons of Confederate Veterans, or SCV, intends to deliver its in-person petition.
SCV petition on paper
Michael Mull, local resident and past commander of the SCV Georgia Division, noted that anyone with computer access can join a change.org petition.
“They do not have to be a resident of this county, and frankly, I don’t think that the people of California, Ohio, New York or any other place like that have any right to tell us in Bulloch County what we should be doing with our monument,” Mull said.
With its hand-signed petition, he said, the SCV is asking individuals their age group and whether they are Bulloch County residents and registered voters.
“I think that the commissioners or whoever will be the deciding entity in this will look at that a lot more carefully than what they would just a petition that is online signed by God knows who,” Mull said.
With multiple members distributing the petition, Mull didn’t know Friday how many people had signed. But he said members hope to be able to present it to the commissioners at their next meeting.
The SCV, whose logo consists mainly of the Confederate battle flag, has been in the middle of the national fight.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in an unrelated decision issued the day after the Charleston killings, ruled that the state of Texas could refuse to issue an SCV-ordered organizational license plate because such tags constitute state speech instead of private speech. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal changed positions Tuesday to say he would support changing the SCV’s Georgia license plate.
“The local camp Sons of Confederate Veterans and also the entire Georgia Division is very much opposed to any relocation of any Confederate monument,” Mull said. “If it’s going to be relocated, we should be the ones to relocate it.”
In 2012, the local chapter, Ogeechee Rifles Camp 941, undertook restoration work on the monument. This included cleaning and sealing the statute, replacing four missing stone cannonballs around its base, planting roses and adding a fence and lighting. Of the total cost of more than $20,000, Mull said, 90 percent came from a grant by the SCV Georgia Division from its license plate sale proceeds, matched by 10 percent from local members.
“We defend the monument based on its historic significance,” Mull said. “Erected in April of 1909, it’s a historic part of downtown Statesboro and in fact the downtown area would be diminished should that monument be removed.”
Mull said he wishes the SCV could copyright the Confederate battle flag and control its use, but can’t because the image is in the public domain. He said he wonders what the reaction would have been if Roof had wrapped himself in some other flag, such as the LGBT flag or the Mexican flag.
“I would point out that the flag or the monument has not shot anybody, and it’s not changing the flag or moving the monument that we need to address,” Mull said. “What we need to address is the inner feeling that some people have. The Sons of Confederate Veterans in no way endorses or condones anything that Mr. Roof did. It goes against anything and everything we stand for.”
At least two petitions have also been started online for keeping the statue where it is. One created by Jason Cleary on change.org had 1,394 supporters as of Saturday afternoon. Another, by Gwendolyn O’Shields at gopetition.com, had 275 signatures.
County to listen
Bulloch County commissioners say they are prepared to listen to both sides.
“Of course my mind is never made up until I vote and I’m assuming that if these petitions come to us then we will be voting at some time in the future,” said Commissioner Roy Thompson, the vice chairman.
But Thompson, 69, who is white, has lived in Bulloch County all his life and said he has been looking at the monument since he was a child.
“In my speaking to folks, I’m hearing from them the same thing that’s in my mind, that that monument is history. It’s history about Bulloch County, and when I ride by and look at it, that’s what I think of, the history,” he said.
One woman shared with him “that that monument did not speak, could not see, could not walk and it was just concrete or marble,” Thompson said. “She was an African American who told me that, and that we had much more important problems in this world than that monument and that she did not want to see it removed.”
Commissioner Ray Mosley, one of two African Americans on the seven-member board, said he is still in the process of gathering facts and listening to people, which he likes to do before making up his mind.
"It’s too fresh,” Mosley said. “If we listen to the communication that’s going on around the country in different states, it would be easy to say we should just remove it. It does bring some harsh feelings in a lot of communities, not only in the African American community, but other ethnicities as well, but I think as elected officials we have to listen to both sides.”
County Attorney Jeff Akins said he’s confident the commissioners will “give due and deliberate consideration to both points of view.” He recommends that anyone who wants to speak to the commissioners call the clerk of the board to be placed on a meeting agenda.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.