July 1, 2020 11:00:43 AM
Dissatisfied with District 1 Supervisor Harry Sanders' decision to only step down as board president during a Tuesday meeting over his recent racist remarks, many of his fellow supervisors and other local leaders vowed to continue pushing for his full resignation from the board.
Three supervisors, in approving a resolution calling for Sanders to leave the board, warned Tuesday that Sanders' refusal to resign could further hurt the community, impede the board's functionality and threaten the county's economic development in the long run.
Sanders' decision came weeks after he commented to The Dispatch on June 15 that the Black community has remained "dependent" since slavery ended and failed to "assimilate" to American culture. The remarks, for which Sanders apologized in a letter published in The Dispatch last week, have gained national attention and sparked a flurry of local protests, with almost 150 members from the local business community calling for his full resignation.
Sanders relinquished the president seat but remained on the board Tuesday morning, despite mounting calls for his retirement from the board and the majority of supervisors urging him to resign entirely Tuesday. After Sanders yielded the presiding seat to board Vice President John Holliman Tuesday morning, dozens of protesters gathered outside the courthouse chanted "Harry Must Go."
"For him to step down (as president) is insulting," District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks told The Dispatch Tuesday, "as though he can have his way in, he writes the narrative. What he should have done was (leave)."
'Land on the right side of history'
Speaking briefly at the beginning of Tuesday's meeting, Sanders said his decision to step down as board president came after some "soul searching" and he hoped the gesture would bring "unity and harmony" to the board.
His decision, however, was followed by a 3-1 vote for the board resolution to further urge for his full resignation. Sanders was the only supervisor to oppose it. District 3 Supervisor John Holliman, who acted as board president for most of the meeting, abstained from voting.
Brooks, who moved to pass the resolution, warned that it could be detrimental to the county for Sanders to remain on the board.
"These racist and offensive remarks have insulted African Americans in Lowndes County, the state of Mississippi and the United States of America," he said Tuesday morning. "The remarks by Harry Sanders ... have greatly tarnished the image of our community and posed a great threat to the future economic development and fractured racial relationships."
He further appealed to Holliman to call for Sanders' full resignation. Holliman previously told The Dispatch he thinks Sanders made a sincere apology, which would be sufficient for the public to put the controversy over his remarks behind them.
"You do not want your reputation to be tarnished. You said you don't plan to run anymore, I hope that you would go out with an untarnished record," Brooks told Holliman. "We are in a defining moment in the history of Columbus, Mississippi. ... I want you to land on the right side of history. You need to vote with this board."
Holliman told The Dispatch he did not vote on the resolution because he feels the decision on Sander's future on the board belongs to Sanders and his district. He refused to comment further on the matter.
"That's District 1's decision. I don't make that decision," Holliman said.
District 3 Supervisor Trip Hairston voted for the resolution but also acknowledged the decision for Sanders to leave ultimately comes down to Sanders and his constituents. If Sanders does not resign willingly, the only way to force his removal is through a citizen petition, which would require at least 51 percent of constituent signatures.
Hairston told The Dispatch Tuesday evening he thinks Sanders' resignation is "warranted," and the Tuesday resolution was "a strong statement from the board about how we would like to move forward." But, he said, he also believed it was the right thing for Sanders to step down as president.
County business left undiscussed
Sanders' refusal to resign, which previously caused a deadlock among supervisors over their stances on the issue, now puts the board's ability to conduct any county business moving forward in question.
Short of Sanders' resignation, Brooks moved to adjourn the Tuesday meeting, a motion that passed 4-1 with Sanders again the lone dissenting vote. Supervisors left many items undiscussed, including the appointment of a new board president and the relocation of the Confederate monument in front of the courthouse to Friendship Cemetery, where both Confederate and Union soldiers are buried.
"It's not my intention to be disruptive, but there are circumstances (that) may dictate how I act," Brooks said. "I don't want people to expect me to be more than Harry when he can sit there and smirk at everyone, when he is causing the problem."
The business can be placed back onto the next agenda for discussion, Brooks said, but he is not sure whether it will be taken up. Nor is he sure of what would happen at the next meeting, which is scheduled for next Monday.
"I don't know what's going to happen pressing forward," he said. "I don't look forward to having Harry Sanders in the boardroom with me knowing the things he said."
Hairston, although voting with Brooks to adjourn, said during the meeting the county needs to conduct business despite the discord.
"If you don't get what you want, and if Harry doesn't resign ...," Hairston told Brooks, "... here we go again. We're all elected to do business."
But District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith said the county cannot move forward unless the issue is resolved.
"I'm a Black man before I'm a supervisor," Smith said. "It's hard for me to get past (those comments). ...We can't do the business of the county or the people until we get past this."
Holliman told The Dispatch Tuesday the board will "get past it" and resume the business at the next meeting.
On top of Sanders' remaining on the board, Brooks said he moved to adjourn the meeting because officers from the county sheriff's department seemed "heavily" armed. LCSO did limit the number of people allowed in the courtroom Tuesday to encourage social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic and also stationed officers outside near the protest.
"You bring all these camouflage people here with these high-power rifles to intimidate us," Brooks said to Sheriff Eddie Hawkins. "This is not about COVID-19, this is about intimidating us like we are somebody that's going to burn up the courthouse."
Dispatch reporters observed more than a dozen officers both outside and inside the courthouse, most of whom wore black shirts and regular pants. No rifle was spotted. Officers barred protesters from entering the back parking lot, where courthouse employees park and enter the building, with a barricade of squad cars parked bumper to bumper.
The sheriff's department declined to comment on the number of officers present for the rally or the weapons they were equipped with. Hawkins told The Dispatch Tuesday morning the deputies successfully prevented any incident from happening.
"My job is to provide safety for all citizens here in Lowndes County, and we have effectively done that today," Hawkins said. "We didn't have any incidents, no use of force, no complaints."
Yue Stella Yu is the local government reporter for The Dispatch. Reach her at 662-328-2424 (ext 106) or follow her on Twitter @StellaYu_Mizzou
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