Debate heats up over Confederate statue



GEORGETOWN — Four panelists agreed to be the central focus of a hot debate in Georgetown Tuesday as a standing-room-only crowd of about 150 county residents heard the group delve into the topic of Confederate memorials.

At issue in the discussion hosted and moderated by the Georgetown Community Forum was whether the Confederate statue on the Williamson County Courthouse grounds should remain or be removed.

The debate was intended to be an open discussion of both sides of the issue, but throughout the evening, the reaction of the audience demonstrated most in attendance believed it was a symbol that should be removed.

But defenders were adamant it was a memorial that should not be removed, focusing their argument on the importance of remembering and honoring Confederate soldiers.

“The answer is a resounding no,” said Col. Shelby Little, a Commander of the South Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans. “I am participating in this discussion with great reluctance. It is my willing duty and obligation to defend the honor and integrity of our forefathers against those who would slander their persons or the reasons and principles for which they fought.”

Little went on to say the monument has been under “continuous attack” since 2015 by what he identified as a “small number of radical so-called social justice groups, organizations and individuals who wish to have this monument torn down, removed to some hidden location, relocated from the square or having explanatory signs erected near it.”

While the overarching debate centered on the issue of removal, panelist Kenneth Witherspoon originally of Baltimore, Maryland – who served as Director of Development for American YouthWorks, Grants Specialist for the Region XIII Education Service Center, and the Hogg Foundation – approached the issue with more nuance, citing the importance of such memorials when properly identified.

“Confederate monuments have always been contentious, but for me the differentiation is that there are memorials to the Confederacy and there are memorials to the Confederate soldier,” Witherspoon said. “Some do not acknowledge a difference. I do. I think that all the memorials on Civil War battlefields, in the graveyards and final resting places of soldiers who died in battle are on hallowed ground and should be treated that way.”

But he qualified that support by addressing the often unclear intent of some monuments.

“I think the statues placed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, of which the statue on the courthouse lawn is, should be judged on their inscriptions,” Witherspoon said. “The inscriptions engraved on the monuments during that time are homages to the Confederacy….and are very flowery language.”

He added that based on the inscription on the Georgetown statue he doesn’t see it as a political statement or in terms of an agenda.

“What I would like to see is a plaque on the Courthouse door referring to the negro pioneers removed and replaced with something closer to historic truth,” he said. “What I suggest is the placement of signage or a museum box explaining that Williamson County voted twice against secession and when it passed, soldiers answered the call of the State of Texas and fought.”

Early on in the debate, there was general agreement on one issue, that symbols themselves aren’t racist or hateful themselves, but people make them so and that if more people spoke out against those misusing these symbols, the issue might be different.

“We make (the symbols) racist,” Witherspoon said. “A cross is not inherently a threatening thing unless it is on fire and surrounded by people in white robes and hoods. People ask me, ‘What can I do?’ I say the only thing I’ve never heard is, ‘This does not represent me.’ I never hear somebody say, ‘Stop.’”

In his defense of the memorial, panelist Carl Braun, a visiting faculty member at The Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Post Graduate School and was a Director at the Homeland Security Policy Institute Group, agreed.

“Symbols are symbols,” Braun said. “I don’t think the symbols matter. They can be misappropriated by just about anybody. I think it’s about what’s in our hearts at the end of the day. If the heart’s in a bad place, then the symbol is going to be in a bad place.”

Still, the general impasse during Tuesday’s forum mirrored the impasse seen around the state and the country as communities grapple with this issue, with one side seeing the monuments as a symbol of slavery and racism and the other defending it as heritage and history that should be preserved.

In his support of preservation of the memorial, Little pulled no punches in calling out those opposed to it, claiming a lack of knowledge of history was the root of the problem.

“Most of the people here recognize there is a fundamental flaw between the disingenuous application of 21st Century perspectives to 19th Century history,” Little said. “There is the crux of the problem, ignorance, mostly willful. Real knowledge and understandings of all types of history is abysmally shallow if present at all in our society.”

In the argument over what the statue symbolized, those who oppose its presence on the courthouse grounds were not willing to agree that it was not about slavery and racism.

“These monuments were not about sweet sentimental honoring of the fallen,” said Rev. Chuck Freeman, the founding minister of the Free Souls Church in Round Rock. “This was a clever smokescreen for a graphic and ominous warning.”

Freeman went on to explain how monuments were erected at county courthouses around Texas, rather than other sites, for a reason.

“Were these locations coincidental? Why courthouses?” Freeman asked. “At the seat of justice the message was gravely and often deadly clear, ‘We white folk are still in charge. We still hold your dignity and very lives in your hands.’”

He went on to tell the audience there were 275 documented lynchings in Texas from 1885 to 1940, saying the erection of the memorials and these acts were not coincidental.

The argument presented by Braun was that the Civil War was not fought over slavery.

“For me, and for many people, it’s not about slavery and it’s not race,” Braun said. “No matter what anyone says, this is not about race. Was the Civil War fought over slavery? That really depends. If you look at the declarations of secession, slavery played a 54 percent role in the discussion here in Texas. The South was very divided on the subject of slavery.”

Freeman argued vehemently against that notion, focusing on the Texas’ letter of secession and the specifics spelling out the rights of slave owners and the superiority of the white race.

“I don’t care what percentage, you know we heard someone referring to what percentage of your language (is about slavery), that’s pretty clear,” Freeman said. “You may use a bunch of other words, you may even bring in a bunch of other reasons, but this is pretty clear to me.”

The evening reached its most tense moment as audience members lined up to ask questions. Sixteen audience members questioned the panelists, 13 of those questioned focused generally on seeking further justification from those that support preservation of the memorial.

One question, directed at the audience itself, polled the African Americans in the room on their reaction to the monument.

“Does this statue affect you negatively?” she asked. “This is a discussion about slavery and this room is minority black people.”

When the audience answered “yes”, she turned to the panelists.

“Knowing this, now having heard from the black people in the community who are in this room, why are memories of people who are long-since dead more important than the feelings of people in our community who are alive today?”

Little responded, “It’s all about feelings isn’t it?” causing the room to erupt.

“There’s perspective, then there’s the reality of history,” he said. “We memorialize a lot of people and a lot of things in our Texas history and our United States history.”

As the evening wound down, 90 minutes of sometimes heated discussion behind them all, one attendee simply asked the question, “Are we getting anywhere?”

In spite of the tension and disagreements, Witherspoon summed up the importance of the discussion and the progress it meant.

“If you are talking about this meeting, yes,” Witherspoon said. “What we do is we proceed. We do not get the answers that we want, but we have spoken. We are getting somewhere.

“When I was 13, I was in the civil rights movement. I assumed that I would die. I assumed that I would die for sitting at the lunch counter. I assumed that somebody would follow me home across the bridge, but I didn’t care. Sometimes what we have to do is, we talk, and this talk is good, but we have to proceed. I think it is easier sometimes to not proceed. What we do is we have things like this. Minds and hearts change, not quickly, maybe not right now, but I think this is better than not talking to each other at all.”