Local officials and community leaders are condemning Lowndes County Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders for comments he made about African Americans being “dependent” since slavery ended and not assimilating to American society like other ethnicities.
Some county and city officials are calling for his resignation.
Sanders gave his comments to The Dispatch after a 3-2 board vote along racial lines Monday against the relocation of a Confederate monument that sits at the courthouse lawn.
The longtime board president voted with the majority, saying he thinks history is worth preserving and the “atrocity” needs to be remembered. However, he further claimed that he thinks the black community is the only ethnic minority group that has “problems” with the history of slavery and have remained “dependent” since then.
“They didn’t have to go out and earn any money, they didn’t have to do anything,” Sanders told The Dispatch Monday. “Whoever owned them took care of them, fed them, clothed them, worked them. They became dependent, and that dependency is still there.”
His remarks, deemed “hurtful” and “insensitive” by many local leaders, drew sharp criticism. Multiple public officials and community advocates argued that Sanders’ racist comments, especially made amid national unrest over racial injustice, further divide the community, hinder its healing process and perpetuate stereotypes people hold of Mississippi.
Sanders told The Dispatch this morning he has no intention to resign, and he will not comment on his remarks or the public condemnation of them.
“Y’all are blowing this way out of proportion,” he said. “All this is (doing) is getting people all riled up, and I don’t have any desire to do that.”
Sanders told the Clarion Ledger on Tuesday he stood by his statement but that he said it “off the record.” However, The Dispatch reporter, who recorded the conversation, told Sanders he was still on the record before he gave the quote. Board of supervisors attorney Tim Hudson, who was present for the conversation, also warned Sanders his statement would be on the record right before he made it.
Brooks to Sanders: ‘Have you lost your damn mind’
Several local leaders, such as Lowndes County NAACP President Lavonne Latham Harris, District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks, District Attorney Scott Colom and Columbus Mayor Robert Smith, took to social media to air their anger toward Sanders’ comments. Many of those leaders also plan to attend a press conference today at the courthouse calling for Sanders’ resignation.
“Harry Sanders I know you will read this. Have you lost your ‘Damn’ mind,” Brooks, who has been on the board with Sanders for more than two decades, said in a Facebook post Tuesday afternoon. “I’ve known for over 20 years your mindset. Now, everyone else get to meet the real you.”
Colom, who on Twitter compared Sanders’ remarks to lies used by the Ku Klux Klan to promote white supremacy, criticized Sanders’ interpretation of slavery.
“Supervisor Sanders, you have it backwards,” Colom said in a Facebook statement Tuesday morning. “Slave owners were dependent on the free labor of slavery. They weren’t doing slaves a favor. They enforced slavery through severe beating and whippings, not food and clothing. They raped women and enslaved their own children. They randomly separated parents from children, husbands from wives … forever.”
Sanders’ remarks, Colom said, continue to “apply negative stereotypes about the citizens you are supposed to lead.”
“Your false claim that blacks are currently dependent continues to rob us of our humanity and dignity,” he said. “You made Segregationist(s) proud today.”
Smith, in a statement Tuesday evening, called Sanders’ comments “despicable.”
“When I read Harry Sanders’ comments, I was shocked,” Smith said in the statement. “That is a slap in the face to every Black citizen in Columbus and Lowndes County. His comments were despicable; they were insulting and a reflection of his true nature, which is unbelievably racist.”
In response to Sanders’ vote for the monument to stay, Smith said the city would support relocating it to Friendship Cemetery, which is within city limits. Both Union and Confederate soldiers are buried there.
“Not only would the city take the statue, but we would also split the cost to move it with the county,” the statement read. “Friendship Cemetery has a special section for confederate soldiers and that would be an ideal location for the monument.”
City Council members Joseph Mickens (Ward 2), Pierre Beard (Ward 4) and Stephen Jones (Ward 5), all of whom are black, told The Dispatch they will be present at today’s press conference for support.
Mickens said Sanders’ comments do not match the power he holds and are insensitive at a time when racism is spurring protests in all 50 states.
“What’s going on in the country today, …the community is already torn up. For him to come out at this time, at this time, and make a statement, that really said something,” he said. “We’ve got a leader that’s thinking like this in the 21st century that’s one of the most powerful men in Columbus, Mississippi. … He needs to go.”
Ward 1 Councilwoman Ethel Taylor Stewart and Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box could not be reached for comment by press time. Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin declined to comment.
Hairston calls for Sanders to step down as board president
District 2 Supervisor Trip Hairston, although reluctant to condemn Sanders, told The Dispatch Tuesday he disagrees with Sanders’ remarks, which he deems inappropriate and “divisive.”
“I think comments like that are very hurtful, not helpful, as we move forward,” he said. “I would, especially now, be even more sensitive about any divisive comments. It’s not appropriate.”
In an email to The Dispatch this morning, Hairston took his positions a step further, supporting stripping Sanders of his title as board president. He also said he would reconsider his positions on changing the state flag and relocating the Confederate monument.
“I support immediate action to remove Harry Sanders as President of the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors,” the email reads. “Mr. Sanders was elected president by his fellow supervisors. We cannot reach our goals while being led by a president with those views.
“(I support) Action to address the Confederate statue on the courthouse lawn,” he continues. “I voted to take no action on Monday. I am now ready to consider the alternatives in a measured way. (I support) a change in the state flag. While this is not an issue for only Lowndes County, it is an issue that goes hand in hand with our history. Our call is to look at the present and the future and not the past. Now is the time.”
District 3 Supervisor John Holliman, who was present when Sanders made those comments, said he stands by Sanders’ account of slavery, where Sanders said slave owners kept slaves and gave them food, clothing and work. However, Holliman said he does not think slaves were “dependent” as Sanders claimed. He said he thinks slaves “earned it” through hard work.
“The slave owners didn’t just give them everything. They earned it. They worked hard,” Holliman said. “Nowadays, there’s no slavery.”
But Joe Max Higgins, CEO of the Golden Triangle Development LINK, was not hesitant to criticize Sanders, who Higgins said has worked with him for 18 years. Sanders’ comments, Higgins said, are a “Go-directly-to-jail card.”
“It’s not acceptable, it’s insensitive,” Higgins said. “It makes me sick.”
The remarks could also potentially harm the effort to bring businesses into the county and could reinforce the “Mississippi bias” in many people’s mind that the state is racist. The LINK, he said, is preparing a public statement that the organization does not condone Sanders’ remarks.
“It’s hard enough to sell Mississippi, it’s hard enough to sell rural Mississippi,” Higgins said. “We don’t need to make it harder than it already is, because, s***, it’s hard as it is.”
Yue Stella Yu was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.
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