Though George Floyd's death renewed calls to remove Confederate monuments, some cities formally decided to protect them.



Americans have removed many dozens of Confederate monuments across this country. But in many places, the monuments are staying put. Half the localities that considered removing the statues decided to keep them. One of our great storytellers, NPR's John Burnett, has a story of two cities with different outcomes.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: When I visited Marshall, Texas, in July, it seemed like they were ready to move the marble statue of a rebel soldier. The curly-haired infantryman gripping a muzzle loader rifle has stood beside the courthouse for 114 years. Even Bill Elliott, with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, sounded fatalistic.

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

BURNETT: But Marshall's experience shows that Confederate statues are not so easy to topple. Here in the piney woods of deep East Texas, in a town that was a stronghold of the Confederacy west of the Mississippi, people had been voicing their opinions for and against the statue for months. Late this summer, the motion finally went before the Harrison County Commissioners Court.


CHAD SIMS: To seek permission to relocate the Confederate soldier statue to another acceptable and secure location.

BURNETT: That was County Judge Chad Sims. Then Zephaniah Timmins, the lone Black and Democratic commissioner, made his case.


ZEPHANIAH TIMMINS: I believe that history do not need to be destroyed, and I also don't want the constant reminder of the suffering that my ancestors endured by the Confederacy.

BURNETT: Judge Sims called for a vote.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Motion by Mr. Timmins. Is there a second?


BURNETT: When no commissioner would second it, Timmins quickly pulled back his motion before Sims could bring down his gavel and kill it.


TIMMINS: Withdraw the motion.

BURNETT: Since the death of George Floyd in May that sparked nationwide protests, some 60 Confederate monuments have been taken down across the country. But other localities have decided to leave their statues up. An NPR count shows votes or decisions to protect at least 28 controversial monuments from Tallahassee, Fla., to Stone Mountain, Ga., to Cochise County, Ariz. They're among the nearly 700 Confederate memorials that remain on public land, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

DEMETRIA MCFARLAND: I was disappointed, but I wasn't surprised at the fact the statue is still standing in this good ole boy city of Marshall, Texas.

BURNETT: Demetria McFarland is the public school teacher who spearheaded the local effort to remove the statue.

MCFARLAND: That was kind of my hope - was that they would have realized that, hey, we're going to do what we can to help the Black community heal here in Marshall. So it's like they're telling us, you know, that they don't care about how we feel.

BURNETT: All four white officials on the commissioners court declined to speak to NPR on why they chose to leave the statue standing. Judge Sims emailed, there are strong feelings on both sides. I'd like to stay neutral.

Statue defenders like Jason Mosely, a local painting contractor, are grateful to the court.

JASON MOSELY: We just want to preserve history is all we want to do. You can't really go by what that statue says. The Confederate doesn't mean that slaves were part of it. You know, that's just a period of time is all it is.

BURNETT: But statue opponents say preserving history requires being accurate about history.

RICHARD ANDERSON: There is no mention in the articles of secession in Texas about states' rights. Slavery is mentioned 21 times.

BURNETT: Former county judge Richard Anderson is incensed when he hears people say that slavery was not central to Confederate Texas. He's a Democrat who wants the statue moved.

ANDERSON: So it was slavery - pure and simple.

BURNETT: Head east from Marshall, past truck stop casinos and an alligator park, and you arrive at a city that's taken a different course - Shreveport, La. For nearly two decades, the Caddo Parish commission debated what to do with the imposing Civil War memorial in front of the courthouse. It features a rebel soldier and four Confederate generals. But the commissioners always deadlocked - six Black Democrats to six white Republicans - until three years ago.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Mr. Clark, can we have the roll call, please?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Dominick, Johnson...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Jackson, Linn...


BURNETT: In that meeting, Commissioner Matthew Linn, who's white and Republican, crossed over.


MATTHEW LINN: My decision is not based on me being a Southern boy. My decision is based simply on the fact that I value the purity that a courthouse is supposed to stand for.

BURNETT: After the vote came down 7 to 5 to relocate the statue, the gallery erupted


BURNETT: Today, the statue remains a volatile issue. Matthew Linn declined an interview for this report because he doesn't want more death threats. And the parish built a big wooden barrier around the monument after George Floyd's death to protect it from protesters. The statue's still there because of legal wrangling with the United Daughters of the Confederacy. But the parish plans to move it to a nearby Confederate cemetery, hopefully early next year.

LYNDON B JOHNSON: It doesn't belong in front of a courthouse. It belongs in a museum or it belongs in a cemetery. And to have it here and when people come in wanting to make sure they can get a fair trial, it shows bias.

BURNETT: That's Lyndon B. Johnson, the Black commissioner who made the motion to move the monument. Yes, his parents named him for the U.S. president. Standing in front of the boxed statue, Johnson says the symbolism of a Confederate monument in front of a house of justice where 40% of the parish is Black was so potent that it was influencing the operation of the courts.

JOHNSON: So you had jurors in the past that basically didn't make a jury because of the statue.

BURNETT: Longtime Commissioner Ken Epperson feels so strongly about the statue that he refuses to have his official picture hang in the courthouse until it's gone.

KEN EPPERSON: And once that thing is gone, just make it a nice, beautiful flower bed or green spot, and that's the end of it. We don't want nothing else down there.

BURNETT: How a community goes about deciding what to do with its Confederate monument can be arduous. Leonard Moore is a historian who lectures about race and civil rights and monuments at the University of Texas at Austin, where he's vice president for diversity.

LEONARD MOORE: I love when we can engage around these things, you know, across racial lines. I just really, really like, sometimes, the non-political correctness. People will tell you what's on their mind. But I like it because now you can have an honest dialogue and honest debate back and forth.

BURNETT: Leonard Moore doesn't think Civil War monuments belong on public property, but he believes those difficult conversations about race and history are themselves a sign of progress.

John Burnett, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE FALL'S "OLD COUNTY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.