The day the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to relocate the Confederate monument in front of the county courthouse, District Attorney Scott Colom’s parents could not believe it.
“They thought that would have never happened. Not in their lifetime, at least,” Colom said, referencing his father, longtime local attorney Wil Colom, and mother, retired chancery court judge Dorothy Colom.
The century-old monument, deeming the Civil War a “noble cause,” will soon find its new home at the city-owned Friendship Cemetery. The decision, Scott Colom said, was one of the turning points in 2020 that shaped the racial dynamics in the community.
Nearing the end of 2020, many local leaders are reflecting upon milestone events over the past year that helped define the racial relations in Columbus and Lowndes County. Marches and protests against a series of events, ranging from the May murder of Minnesota man George Floyd to District 1 Supervisor Harry Sanders’ racist remarks in June, brought along unseen advocacy in the local community and unified the community to some degree, some leaders say.
Floyd’s death “shook the conscience” of the nation and served as a “tipping point” as communities across the country demanded justice in the street, said Germaine McConnell, executive director of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science. Floyd, a Black man, died after Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. The incident was caught on video and led to protests nationwide.
“This is something that has been brewing for years and years, but it took that event to really move people to action,” he said during a Tuesday night “Let’s Talk Columbus” panel, which was formed in August to address race relations issues.
Following Floyd’s death, the Columbus Police Department updated its policies to articulate the ban on use of chokeholds — the tactic that killed Floyd, Mayor Robert Smith pointed out.
Days after Floyd’s death, Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s office dismissed a criminal charge in the 2015 death of Ricky Ball.
Ball, a Black man, was shot and killed by former Columbus police officer Canyon Boykin, who is white. Boykin was indicted for manslaughter, but Fitch’s office concluded Boykin shot Ball in self-defense.
Angered by the dismissal, protesters organized several peaceful demonstrations throughout the city calling for justice for Ball. That was a milestone in race relations, Colom said, because he had never seen such a high level of advocacy that is so “widespread and long-lasting” in Columbus.
“I don’t recall a time where you saw that much advocacy,” Colom said, “and definitely I never saw a time where you had as much diversity in the support of racial reconciliation.”
While protests for Ball had yet to die down, Sanders commented in June to The Dispatch on the record the Black community remained “dependent” since slavery ended and failed to “assimilate” into American society. The racist remarks drew national attention, criticism from other local leaders and months of protests outside and inside the courthouse, asking him to resign entirely from the board. Sanders stepped down as board president in July.
David Armstrong, Columbus’ chief operations officer, said Sanders’ comments brought the local community together against him.
“It wasn’t just African Americans who were protesting. White people were, too,” he said. “… I think that had, ironically, a unifying effect on the community’s race relations.”
Moving forward, Colom said he hopes to see more in-depth investigations into policing efforts. Local leaders should also strive to be transparent and let data show where their biases may lie, he said. However, change may have to happen “organically,” he said.
“It’s hard for events like that to change race relations just overnight,” he said. “(But) it raised the consciousness of a lot of people to the issue of racism.”
Rita Felton, spokesperson for the Columbus Air Force Base and organizer of “Let’s Talk Columbus,” said she hopes to carry on the discussion and normalize the conversation.
“To start this type of dialogue, it’s not just for a day, it’s not just for a month,” she said. “We’ve got to be consistent moving forward. … If all of us, in our niches, wherever we are, have small conversations, and we are a light where we are.”
District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks, however, said he wishes to see more action than talk. Instead of gathering among themselves and talking about the issues, he said people should go straight to the source of racism and injustice and confront them directly.
“When the talking is over, everybody goes in their own directions. … Nothing comes out of it,” he said. “… (Protests) last only so long, but at least you bring attention to the notion that people are not happy with it.”
Yue Stella Yu was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.