A monument to “The memory of Carroll’s Confederate Soldiers who fought in defense of our constitutional rights from Bethel to Appomattox” stands in front of the Carroll County courthouse in Carrollton Mississippi. No surprise there; virtually every county courthouse in Mississippi constructed before 1920 sports a civil war memorial. But few of these monuments are accompanied by the Confederate flag. We’re not talking about the Mississippi state flag that incorporates the stars and bars–this is the genuine article.
Carroll County’s Confederate monument was erected in the early 20th century as civil war veterans were becoming an endangered species. The wording on confederate monuments varies little from county to county, but the memorial in Carrollton is unusually pointed. The inscription declares that confederate soldiers died fighting for constitutional rights, which implies that the federal victory decimated the rights guaranteed by the US Constitution.
But the concluding statement is the most striking: “Truth Crushed to Earth Will Rise Again”.
The phrase is taken, oddly enough, from the pen of the Yankee poet William Cullen Bryant:
Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again;
The eternal years of God are hers;
But Error, wounded, writhes in pain,
And dies among his worshippers.
Bryant was a staunch supporter of Abraham Lincoln and his words were incorporated into Martin Luther King’s How Long-Not Long speech:
Somebody’s asking, “When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?” I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.”
But a half century before King gave his famous sermon, someone in Carroll County, Mississippi latched onto William Cullen Bryant’s striking phrase. Emblazoned on a civil war memorial, “truth crushed to earth will rise again” translates into “The South’s Gonna Rise Again”.
Incorporated in 1836, Carrollton Mississippi may be the most picturesque little town in the state. Driving through the community you encounter a sign pointing to the Carroll Academy, an all-white private school founded shortly after the federal government finally ended segregated public schooling in Mississippi. Pictures on the school’s website portray hundreds of fans cheering for their beloved Rebels, but you won’t find a black face among them. This is intentional.
Former Senate Minority Leader, Trent Lott got into trouble for his association with the Black Hawk Rally, but nobody in Mississippi paid it any mind. Democrats and Republicans line up to speak at the event. Initially, the Black Hawk event was sponsored by the proudly racist Council of Conservative Citizens, now they merely sponsor a barbecue that runs parallel to the political rally. From the beginning, however, the event has been a fundraiser for the segregation academies of Carroll County. When State Senator Lydia Chassaniol (R-Winona) was asked to explain her membership in the CCC, she explained that it was simply a group dedicated to “raising money for schools”. She declined to mention that no black or brown students attend any of the schools in question.
In the course of our 2011 civil rights tour, Friends of Justice set up our video camera in front of the monument and one of our summer interns related the story that made little Carrollton Mississippi a national sensation back in 1886. Shortly after a young black man was lynched by accident (the crowd took him for another jail inmate), two black brothers, Ed and Charlie Brown, got into a dispute with Jim Liddell Jr., a white resident of nearby Greenwood. Events spiralled out of control and both parties ended up suing one another. Nine years after the demise of Reconstruction, it was still possible for a black man to take a white man to court.
The Carrollton Massacre (locally known as the Carrollton riot) put an end to that. While Ed and Charlie Brown were pleading their case in court, Jim Liddell and a large posse of supporters arrived from Greenwood on horseback. Breaking into groups of fifteen, the men entered all four entrances into the courthouse, gunning down every black person they encountered. When they got to the courtroom, several victims jumped out of the courthouse windows only to be shot dead as they lay writhing on the ground. Twenty-three black residents died that day, Ed and Charlie Brown among them.
When the massacre sparked national headlines, an inquiry was launched. According to the report, the event was regrettable, but the Browns, being ignorant half-breeds with a habit of getting into trouble, deserved what they got. Today, of course, hardly anyone has heard about the Carrollton massacre.
When the Friends of Justice intern finished relating these troubling facts for the camera, I noticed a scowling man standing a few feet away from us.
“Good morning,” I said in the most amicable voice I could muster.
The man said nothing, but his scowl grew even more pronounced. I smiled in his direction until he finally stomped off and climbed into his truck.
A few moments later, we were in Miss Sippy’s Coffee Shop and Mercantile, a delightful establishment next to the town square that captures the 19th century charm of the location. Pictures of ancient Carroll County worthies line the walls along with bric-a-brac from days gone by. A friendly man in early middle age bustled into the shop and handed me a twenty-page document still warm from the printer.
“I just saw you doing some filming in front of the courthouse,” he told me, “and I thought you might be interested in our local history. This is a speech that was delivered in 1986 and the 150th anniversary of our town’s incorporation that will tell you everything you need to know. I thought you might like to read it.”
After thanking the man for his kind gift, I had a quesstion. “I’ve seen lots of civil war memorials in the South,” I said, “but I don’t think I have ever seen the stars and bars flying in front of a courthouse. What’s the meaning of that?”
“Well, it means just what you’d think,” the man told me, “the Confederate flag honors the Confederate soldiers, whoever they may be.”
The document the friendly man handed me had a brief paragraph about the black residents of Carroll County, Mississippi. Several were mentioned by name. As you would expect, Ed and Charlie Brown and their supporters were ignored completely.
Do they teach about the Carrollton Massacre at the Carroll Academy or down at J.Z. George High School (the town’s public high school)?
How do black residents feel about the monument to white supremacy that dominates the courthouse square?
Do white and black residents ever talk about these things?
Do the politicians cueing up to speak at the Black Hawk Old Fashioned Political Rally worry about their cozy association with the Council of Conservative Citizens?
Was the audience at the Black Hawk political rally treated to a wide range of political opinion, or were the CCC boys nodding in agreement as they flipped burgers?
Why did Governor Hailey Barbour shrug in indifference when the Council of Conservative Citizens featured a picture of Haley getting up-close-and-personal with CCC leaders?
Why does Senator Lydia Chassaniol’s assocation with a hate group actually enhance her chances of re-election?
Why does the brand of politics sponsored by a group that rose Phoenix-like from the ashes of the old white Citizens’ Councils pass these days for mainstream conservatism?
Is Mississippi becoming more like the rest of the Union; or has America been reconfigured in the image of Mississippi?
The answer to this last question is “yes”. Thirty years ago, Mississippi and America confronted their differences and decided to split the difference. The political vision you encounter in a picturesque Mississippi county has been shaping the life of our nation for decades. Truth crushed to earth has risen again, or at least staggered to its feet.