Martin Luther King Jr., black civil rights, and the subversion of Confederate portraiture.
Updated: Nov 2, 2018
A photograph of Dr. King and Andrew Young leading a night rally in Grenada, Mississippi on June 14, 1966, shows how closely civil rights leaders associated Confederate monuments with a racist agenda. [Fig 1.] Silhouetted against a portrait of Jefferson Davis president of the Confederacy, King in mid-speech is placed in contrast to Davis's silent white epitaph; a living body of resistance in opposition to the man-in-stone representing a slave-owning past. The artist Charmian Reading, a white woman from Toronto Canada, had been commissioned by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to document black protests in the South, and her picture has a sense of drama—if not danger—perfectly in keeping with the heightening tensions of the time.
Protesting continuing discrimination in the Mississippi Delta two years after the passing the Voting Rights Act, the 220 mile, March Against Fear stretched from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi. When the lead organizer, James Meredith, was shot on Highway 51 by white supremacist James Aubrey Norvell, Dr. King's traveled to Grenada to joined the walkers in a show of solidarity, quickly turning a “fragile little march [into] the biggest parade since Selma.”[i] Meredith recovered and later re-joined the five-month protest that was named in his honor, but after years of passive resistance Dr. King's anti-violent doctrine was starting to be called into question, and less than two weeks after the picture was taken the SNCC chairman, Stokley Carmichael called for "Black Power" to rise up and introduce a new phase of active militancy that would"smash everything Western civilization has created.”[ii]
According to researcher Sally Lee Mc White, the Grenada County monument in Reading's photograph was the first Confederate statue purposely used by civil rights leaders as a back-drop to call-out institutional racism. Over a number of days the monument served as a central meeting spot for mass rallies marked by placing an American flag into the medallion portraying Jefferson Davis that "symbolically reclaimed" the area around the statue for freedom. [Fig. 2] The flags were quickly removed by locals when the marchers moved on, leaving in its wake "incensed whites across the state," which in turn led to a resurgence in pro-Confederate sentiment attempting to recast Davis not as a slave-owner, but—as the statue's base reinforced—a "Soldier, Statesman, Patriot," who had served as the US Secretary of War before the "War of Northern Aggression."[iii]
Commissioned in 1910 the Grenada County monument was one of many installed decades after the end of the Civil War during the Jim Crow era. Deliberately appealing to familial sentiments of youth and service, it features a common soldier at the top and relegates Jefferson Davis, at the base. [Fig 3] Dedicated to "the noble men who marched neath the stars and bars," the citizen-soldier holds the barrel of his musket upwards in his right hand and overlooks two confederate flags alongside inscribed sentiments paying tribute to Mississippi's soldiers, sailors, and the women of the Confederacy who keep "vigil o'er sacred graves."
In advance of the 50thanniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's. death on April 4th, towns across the America have been taking down their Confederate monuments. Deciding what statues would be toppled has been left in the hands of their communities, and often portraiture is the deciding factor. Depictions of the Confederate leadership: President Jefferson Davis, Generals Nathan Bedford Forrest and Robert E. Lee, and chief Justice Roger Taney go; but statues to the common soldier often remain.[iv] However it is worth noting that for Martin Luther King Jr. and others who lead the Civil Rights movement in the mid1960s the ability to fund, erect and maintain a memorial was also a way to control the messaging of public space; and indeed, only a few feet away a second marker dedicated to J. Augustine a journalist and poet who wrote the libretto of a Civil War operetta reinforces the message.
Kirk Savage in his book "Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves," points out that statues dedicated to the "citizen-soldier," did not include the estimated 200,000 black soldiers who fought in the Civil War. Instead, what was promoted in Grenada County and elsewhere was a superior type of manhood that served to equate military valor and civic duty as white, male and armed. [v]
Martin Luther King, Jr. and his colleagues promoted a different version of masculine pride in response that inspired its own sets of symbols and songs, including a stanza from the Grenada March #107 that seems to perfectly echo Charmian reading's photograph:
Echoing songs on the square White breath in cold night air Black shadows, two by two Marching strong, me and you.
"Ohhh freedom, ohhhh freedom ohhhh freedom over me...."[vi]
1. Charmian Reading, Martin Luther King Jr. and Andrew Young (in front of MLK to the right), 1966. Gelatin silver print, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. © Charmain Reading
2. Jo Freeman photograph, Grenada, Mississippi, "Bob Green Speaks, while "Big Lester" Hankerson of Southern Christian Leadership Conference eyes the Crowd," June 7, 1966 © Jo Freeman
3. Mark Hilton, Grenada County Confederate Monument, photograph, October 18, 2015. Courtesy of the Historical Marker Database.
[i]David Johnson Thornton. “The Rhetoric of Civil Rights Photographs: James Meredith's March Against Fear.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs, vol. 16, no. 3, 2013, pp. 457–488.
[ii]Kaufman, Michael. "Stokely Carmichael, Rights Leader Who Coined 'Black Power,' Dies at 57:, New York Times, November 17, 1998.
[iii]Sally Leigh Mc White, "Echoes of the Lost Cause: Civil War Reverberations in Mississippi, 1865-2001,"unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Mississippi, 2002.
[iv]In Memphis Tennessee for example, statues of Jefferson Davis the president of the Confederacy and Nathan Bedford Forrest a general and later "grand wizard" of the Klu Klux Klan were removed in 2017. In the words of State representative Raumesh Akbari, a national member of Black Elected Legislative Women, "This is a huge step in healing the deep racial wounds that have tried to define Memphis's future." A current online poll asking people if the Grenada County monument should be torn down as of April 1, 2018 recorded that 86% voted "no."
[v]Kirk Savage. Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton University Press: New Jersey, 1997.
[vi]Bruce Hartford, "Grenada Mississippi – Chronology of a Movement", 1967. http://www.crmvet.org/info/grenada.htm