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A multiracial group of citizens of Lafayette County are working to memorialize the seven known victims of lynching who were murdered there from 1885 to 1935, as well as move the Confederate statue from the courthouse lawn. The supervisors—all white men—have not yet decided whether to include Lawson “Nelse” Patton’s name on the lynching memorial because Patton was accused of killing a white woman. Illustration by Zilpha Young

‘Epilogue and Epitaph’: Oxford Attempts to Reconcile Legacy of Racism and Lynchings

OXFORD, Miss.—On the morning of Sept. 19, 1907, thousands of Mississippians gathered on the Oxford square to celebrate the unveiling of a brand new monument to the Confederacy. 

The United Confederate Veterans, Camp 752 of Oxford, Miss., had partnered with Sally Murry Falkner, grandmother of author William Faulkner, to raise the $3,000 required to memorialize those who fought and died for the Confederacy. 

The matriarch pursued this plan after the Albert Sidney Johnston chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy voted to memorialize the University Greys—an infantry regiment made up of UM students who were all but decimated in the Battle of Gettysburg—by erecting a monument on the University of Mississippi campus near buildings constructed by slaves. Murry Falkner, however, sought to honor all Confederates of Lafayette County and led a dissenting faction who took up that work. As a result, Oxford ended up with two marble celebrations of the Confederacy. William Faulkner later called the town’s rebel-soldier statue the Civil War’s “epilogue and epitaph.”

student athletes at Confederate monument in Oxford - Mississippi Free Press
Student athletes from the University of Mississippi football program gathered around the Confederate monument on the Oxford Square on Aug. 28, 2020, the 65th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till. Photo by Christian Middleton

“They gave their lives in a just and holy cause,” the front of the statue claims. And on the back: “The sons of veterans unite in this justification of their fathers’ faith.”

Following the courthouse statue’s unveiling, Confederate veterans formed a battle line and departed for the university park where they reenacted the Battle of Chickamauga. This particular battle was the largest Confederate victory in the Western theatre of the Civil War and second only to Gettysburg in casualties, making it a linchpin in Confederate glorification.

Now, nearly 114 years later, a group of citizens of Lafayette County are calling for removal of the monument that caused much celebration among former Confederates, even though state law protects it. So far, however, the Lafayette County Board of Supervisors has not budged in its opposition to moving the statue from the lawn in front of the courthouse.

The supervisors are also holding out on erecting a memorial there to seven Black men that white mobs lynched in their county from 1885 to 1935 because one of them was accused of killing a local white woman.

Challenging the Legacy of White Supremacy

Lydia Koltai, a community organizer in Oxford, has advocated for the town’s Confederate statue’s removal for the better part of 2020.  “For me, the monument really is a symbol of white supremacy and the ideology that enabled slavery to exist for 250 years and then for Jim Crow and segregation to exist for another hundred years after Reconstruction,” she told the Mississippi Free Press.

Lydia Koltai, a community organizer in Oxford, has advocated for the town’s Confederate statue’s removal for the better part of 2020. Courtesy Lydia Koltai

Widespread protests against systemic racism and police violence exploded in America, and here in Mississippi, since the end of May when Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd. The velvet ditch, a phrase Oxonians like to use for their town, has been no exception. 

While Koltai and other opponents of the monument have continued to gather in protest as recently as Nov. 28, the height of protests came in early September when many notable Oxonians joined their neighbors at the base of the Confederate statue standing in the heart of the Oxford square—there to challenge the legacy of white supremacy the 32-foot-tall marble grayback situated beside the Lafayette County courthouse represents.

Veterans, renowned business owners and religious leaders of Lafayette County have joined the ranks of those who are standing against the presence of the Confederate monument. The statue is one of  52 Confederate monuments accounted for in the state of Mississippi, a state where nearly 40 percent of residents are Black with many of them descendants of enslaved ancestors.

For many, these marble memorials to the Confederacy not only celebrate a war to maintain and extend slavery to new U.S. states in the 19th century, but also represent the acceptance of extrajudicial lynchings by white Mississippians attempting to maintain racial dominance in their society. 

In fact, white Lafayette countians hanged a Black man, Lawson Patton, on the court square the year after Grandma Falkner’s monument was erected.

A Lynching on the Oxford Square

Both UM and Oxford’s statues went up during an era of intense Lost Cause mythology building as a way to both glorify away the shame of what still-living Confederates veterans actually had fought to maintain—slavery—and as a way to extend the traditions and supposed benefits of white supremacy into future generations. The decades following the Civil War and the end of Reconstruction were extremely violent for Black freedmen with crowded, festive lynchings and race massacres as organized ways to keep them away from the polls and political organizing—insurrections against Black voting that spanned decades.

Stephen D. Lee Confederate Statue at Mississippi State University
Mississippi State University’s first president, Confederate Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee, was a white supremacist who led efforts long after the Civil War to successfully rewrite history about the Confederacy, replacing it with unity and “reconciliation” myths. George Hall, near this bust of Lee and Lee Hall behind it, is named for U.S. Sen. James Z. George, as is a building at the University of Mississippi. George wrote the clauses in the 1890 Constitution that took away the right to vote from Black Mississippians and launched Jim Crow, officially enforced by lynchings and massacres. Photo by Donna Ladd

“There’s still a significant amount of learning that a lot of people need around the history of lynchings,” April Grayson said. She is the director of community and capacity building for the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, which began at the University of Mississippi, and a steering committee member for The Lynching Memorialization In Lafayette County.

The momentum behind protests this summer stemmed mainly from images of George Floyd dying with a police officer’s knee to his neck, but Mississippi’s connection to racial terror goes back much further. The state has a record of hundreds of well-publicized lynchings—sometimes announced by newspapers like the Jackson Daily news in advance—but many were not as well-documented. The now-manicured streets of Oxford ran red with the blood of Black people slaughtered under the guise of justice even though they had not been proved guilty in a trial.

A U.S. senator led one of those lynchings.

“A man was lynched on the square a year after the Confederate monument was put up,” Lydia Koltai said, also a member of the steering committee for The Lynching Memorialization in Lafayette County. In 1908, white men abducted a man named Lawson Patton, otherwise known as Nelse, from what was considered the most secure jail in the state of Mississippi at the time, then shot and hanged him on the Lafayette County courthouse grounds from a telephone pole. Patton was accused of the murder of a white woman and the attempted rape of her daughter.

A reporter with the Commercial Appeal in Memphis described witnessing the urgency with which the mob worked to abduct their victim. “It is doubtful if ever before in the history of mobs there has been a more systematic and long-continued assault made on a jail or door than has been witnessed by hundreds of Lafayette, Marshall and Yalobusha citizens here tonight,” he wrote.

The Sept. 10, 1908 edition of the Los Angeles Evening Express quoted former U.S. Sen. W. V. Sullivan, who claimed credit for Patton’s killing.

Former U.S. Sen. William V. Sullivan, a Panola County native who attended the University of Mississippi, took full credit in newspaper reports for leading the lynch mob that broke into the jail and then hanged Nelse Patton on the Oxford square from a telephone pole. Photo: Public Domain

“I led the mob which lynched Nelse Patton and I’m proud of it,” Sullivan, a Winona native, declared. “I directed every movement of the mob, and I did everything I could to see that he was lynched. Cut a white woman’s throat—and a negro! I would not mind standing the consequences any time for lynching a man who cut a white woman’s throat. I will lead a mob in such a case any time.” 

The news report concludes, “The coroner’s jury which conducted the inquest over the body of the negro declared in its verdict that the death was at the hand of unknown parties.” 

‘Unspeakable Acts’ Against a White Woman Never Proved

Lynching victim Patton’s name came up again recently as an excuse to delay a lynching memorial. He is one of seven known local lynching victims out of the several thousand omitted from historical records and social narratives. Grayson and Koltai are seeking to memorialize Patton along with the six other known lynching victims murdered in the Lafayette County area, but they are facing resistance from the Lafayette County Board of Supervisors, who are the final hurdle that must be cleared to memorialize the victims.

On Dec. 7, representatives of the The Lynching Memorialization in Lafayette County’s steering committee met with the board of supervisors, who are all white men, to discuss the implementation of their planned memorial to local victims of lynching. The Mississippi Department of History and Archives has already approved The Lynching Memorialization marker’s placement.

At this early December meeting, the board of five white men refused to approve the memorial marker Lydia Koltai and her colleagues have been working for since September 2019, but they did approve the placement of an “officer memorial monument” on the courthouse lawn. After the board approved the police monument, they moved to place a moratorium on the placement of memorial markers on the grounds of the Lafayette County courthouse.

On Sept. 9, 1908, the Natchez Democrat reported on the Oxford lynching—and the reason that supposedly justified it, although the mob did not allow Patton to be legally tried for the alleged crime. That he may have killed a white woman then could block a lynching memorial in Oxford today. Clip: newspapers.com

District 3 Supervisor David Rikard asked the committee to strike the name of Lawson Patton from the lynching memorial, saying he had obtained information that Patton was accused of murdering a white woman and attempting to rape her daughter. Rikard told the representatives he could not agree to memorializing someone who committed what he called “unspeakable acts.”

Grayson attempted to sway the board. “It’s a complicated history, and the marker is not memorializing (Patton’s alleged) actions, but it is speaking to a larger issue of the fact that no one was given their right of due process of law,” she told the men.

Her position prompted District 4 Supervisor Chad McLarty to ask, “Where is the conversation going?”

After Grayson told the board of supervisors that the entire steering committee would need to approve Rikard’s request, the two parties agreed to continue their search for common ground. Grayson told the board it was unlikely that the steering committee would vote to strike Patton’s name from the memorial.

Demanding ‘Moral Perfection’

Supervisor Rikard’s condition of the marker’s placement is problematic, in no small part, due to the historical context of lynching with the excuse, true or not, that brutal extrajudicial violence was necessary because the accused Black man had hurt, raped or insulted a white woman. Patton never received due process or a trial, meaning there is no evidence that he committed those acts and he was, thus, innocent when he was murdered. He was denied his right to be tried and was subjected to vigilantism. 

Black men and boys such as Emmett Till have historically been accused of crimes they did not commit as a method of justifying the brutal work of white supremacists and in an overwhelming number of cases, white women were used as an excuse for the violence. 

Like many lynchings in the 20th century, the extrajudicial hanging of Lawson “Nelse” Patton on the Oxford square received wide media coverage. Many newspapers publicized lynchings in advance; they attracted large crowds of men, women and children  in a festive atmosphere, and photographers created and profited from selling postcards of the lynchings and the victims’ remains. Clip from newspapers.com

 

 

This pervasive lie was so widely used to excuse vigilantism that famed investigative journalist and NAACP co-founder Ida B. Wells penned a scathing editorial about it in 1892 in the Memphis Free Speech. “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men rape white women,” Wells wrote then. “If Southern white men are not careful, they will overreach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”

Dr. Darren Grem, associate professor of history and southern studies at the University of Mississippi, said myths of Black violence against white women were often used as a way to justify mob killings.

“That’s the common trope, that was definitely the common language, the common approach at that time, certainly, in 1908,” Grem told the Mississippi Free Press.

Southern newspapers of the time covered lynchings with sensationalistic fervor and usually sympathetically, stating as fact that the lynchings were to avenge crimes against white women and seldom questioning lynching victims’ denial of due process.

“If you’re focusing on Patton himself and what we can reconstruct about his life, it’s very spotty,” Grem said. “You have to lean on newspaper reports from 1908, most of them in white-run press that clearly have an agenda. But that’s what you’ve got to lean on, and obviously they’re going to pitch it in a way in which it presents Patton as this sort of essential aggressive Black threat that can only be met by violence outside the confines of legal jurisprudence.”

Grem shared what he knew about the victim.

“He’s one of these guys, at least from what you can tell from the sources, you know—he’s a bootlegger, he’s a guy that was plugged into the kind of Oxford underground at the time. He had run into the law a few times, but the important thing is that he was still afforded, ideally, the protection of the law, which he clearly did not get,” the professor said.

“What’s funny about it … is that Patton was going out to her place because Mr. McMillan (husband of the woman Patton allegedly killed) was in jail,” Grem continued. “So, it was a white guy in jail sending an African American ‘trusty’ as they called them at the time, somebody that could supposedly be trusted to bring messages back and forth, and that’s what sent him out there. So, it’s something in which Mr. McMillan even though he was a crook, he was afforded the full protection and adjudication of the law in such a way that clearly Mr. Patton was not.”  

University of Mississippi history professor Darren Grem says white lynch mobs often used the myth of killing white women to justify murder of Black men. After emancipation and through the 20th century, lynchings and race massacres were a common way to terrorize Black people out of seeking power, building wealth, and seeking and exercising their right to vote and organize in the United States. Courtesy UM

Grem had a quick response when asked what he thought about a solution to the issue Supervisor Rikard raised. “I think a straightforward solution would be to include (Patton) among the names remembered. That’s the solution, the professor said.

“I don’t necessarily know what’s going on in their heads and their perspective,” Grem said of the Lafayette supervisors, “but from a historian’s point of view, it’s somewhat problematic to pull one figure out and in some ways kind of demand moral perfection from a victim, or bringing up their alleged—and it’s very important to say this—alleged crimes from over a hundred years ago as a kind of  justification for leaving them out of public memory. 

That to me, seems undue and injurious because even after his death, Mr. Patton must prove himself worthy of not being lynched and then forgotten.”

‘This Person Was Actually Caught in the Act’

The Mississippi Free Press asked Rikard to discuss the reasoning behind his desire to strike Patton’s name from the memorial. Like Grem, the Lafayette County supervisor cited limited source material and confirmed that he made the decision after reading what is available in news reports from publications that often contributed to and perpetuated racism in the U.S.

“The only information we have to go on are those paper clippings. So if you’re going to say that whatever information you’re going to bring about the other four (lynching victims) that you’re getting from those paper clippings, then you have to include them all, you can’t just say they apply to four but not one. All of the information that is being introduced has been researched or OK’d by Archives and History (sic) is based on those articles, so you can’t say that they apply to some but not all the cases. Like I mentioned last night, if you read those articles, the other gentlemen were accused, this person (Patton) was actually caught in the act.”

Lafayette County Supervisor David Rikard asked to strike Nelse Patton’s name from a proposed lynching memorial because he allegedly killed a white woman. Assaulting white women was the most common excuse lynch mobs gave for lynchings, often repeated in newspapers without evidence. Courtesy Lafayette Board of Supervisors

That statement, of course, is based on racist newspaper accounts and supposed eyewitness accounts that never had to stand up in court. This reporter reminded Rikard that Lawson Patton was only alleged to have murdered the victim.

Rikard agreed, but argues that the board of supervisors now only has word of mouth and news clippings to work with. When asked if the decision to strike Patton’s name was appropriate given the consideration that no evidence against Patton exists and that he did not receive due process, the District 3 supervisor asked, “Do we have any actual information or any facts that those men were lynched besides based on those articles?”

“It’s the only (name) I have an issue with. If we remove his name then I’m for putting up the marker as I originally voted,” he added.

White Board Has a History of Resistance

On July 7, 2020, the Lafayette County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to keep the Confederate statue in place next to the Lafayette County courthouse, even as the University of Mississippi moved Oxford’s second rebel-soldier statue to an old cemetery on the edge of campus. Since the vote, several Mississippians have spoken out against the symbol. The board of all white men has since displayed an unwillingness to grapple with the issue, sloughing off interactions with citizens who wish to discuss the statue. Other board members have made comments that statue opponents say show insensitivity to racial issues and understanding of the diverse group of people they were elected to represent.

During the same meeting in which the board of supervisors voted to keep the Confederate monument where it stands, District 4 Supervisor Chad McLarty conflated an alleged moment of prejudice he claims to have experienced with racism.

Lafayette County Supervisor Chad McLarty says he has been a victim of racism, too. He voted against a proposed lynching memorial in his county in the past as well as moving the Confederate statue on the court square. He said his Black friends and colleagues are not bothered by it. Photo courtesy Lafayette Supervisors

“I myself have been a victim of racism due to the color of my skin,” the supervisor told those gathered. “I’ve also been a victim of police brutality. What I do know is there are a lot of bad people in this world, and no matter how many statues, flags or pancake boxes you take down, they will still exist.” He seems to have been referring to the recent announcement of Aunt Jemina’s retirement.

In September 2019, when discussions about the marker were first presented to the board, McLarty cast the only dissenting vote when the Lafayette County Board of Supervisors approved language for a marker memorializing victims of lynchings in Lafayette County.

The Daily Mississippian reported that McClarty had an issue with the description of the lynching of Will Steen, who was murdered in 1893 after allegedly engaging in an affair with a white woman. McLarty stated then that he thought the description was “too vague.”

Integrating America’s Collective Consciousness

Much like the murder of Emmett Till—a 14-year-old boy who white men abducted, tortured, shot and dumped in the Tallahatchie River in Aug. 28, 1955—the killing of George Floyd dramatically altered American discourse and brought the long-ignored struggles of Black america to the forefront of white American consciousness. The vision of Floyd’s demise—the apparent cruelty of an unrelenting knee to the neck as he called for his mother to help him—caused America’s pot polity to boil over. Smartphone-clutching white Americans were forced to look at what Black Americans have known since the beginning of the American experiment—racial terror is alive and well.

Sonny Strauss was in Oxford throughout the month of September protesting racial injustice by using visual art to catch the eye of Oxonians. Photo by Christian Middleton



Sonny Strauss, activist and a citizen of Cleveland, Miss., has not shied away from engaging with other Mississippians about this issue. He protested in Oxford over Labor Day weekend, calling for the arrest of Carolyn Bryant, the woman whose false claim of harassment by Emmett Till led to his murder. 

Additionally, Strauss visited Oxford numerous times in the fall of 2020, participating in one-man protests in honor of Till and Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed in her own home by police officers last March in Louisville, Ky. Strauss, who is also an artist, drew the ire of many white Oxonians who have seen the eye-catching signs he has displayed at the base of the Confederate monument in the middle of the tiny and charming town square. 

One sign read, “Remove this racist statue,” while another proclaimed, “Carolyn’s Guilty.” 

Many people walking past quietly cursed him, but other citizens agreed with his message. Some drove by and raised clenched fists in the air, signaling support.

From the capital city to smaller towns like Petal, Columbus and Oxford, Mississippians have joined thousands of Americans who have taken to the streets to build a better America. The push for a more equitable Mississippi is enduring, but many white citizens of the state would simply prefer one more day in Dixie. In Mississippi, ties to the Lost Cause, or at least excuses for it, exist at even the highest levels of state government. 

Gov. Tate Reeves, a member of Kappa Alpha Order, a fraternity known for having Robert E. Lee as their spiritual leader, declared April as “Confederate Heritage Month,”  even as the people of Mississippi awaited his statewide response to Covid-19. The Magnolia State also has three distinct holidays which celebrate the Confederacy: Confederate Memorial Day, Jefferson Davis’ birthday and Robert E. Lee Day, which is the same day that many celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and contributions to the world.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves speaks to the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Vicksburg
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves spoke at the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ national reunion in Vicksburg, Miss., in July 2013. Photo via R.E. Lee Camp 239 SCV Facebook group

U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith attended Lawrence County Academy, one of dozens of segregation academies that sprang up in the late 1960s and early 1970s—as the U.S. Supreme Court forced Mississippi and hold-out states to immediately integrate public schools, racist white parents enrolled their children in these academies to bypass the integration of Mississippi’s public-school system. In 2018, Hyde-Smith came under fire for her comments about a political supporter when she said,  “If he invited me to a public hanging I’d be on the front row.”

Mississippi, with its burden of being the site of the most lynchings in America, is not a state where hanging jokes are tolerated.

Even former Gov. William Forrest Winter came of age in Grenada, Miss., as a segregationist—and a Democrat starting back when it still meant “Dixiecrat” in Mississippi—but he spent decades of his life denouncing white supremacy.

In spite of these long-time challenges, the will of the Mississippians ready to let go of Lost Cause mythology is slowly being realized. The flag over the State Capitol officially changed today, and efforts to remove Confederate monuments and wholehearted attempts to establish accurate visions of the past are underway.

The Delta Flaggers, a group that opposes changing Mississippi’s flag, have protested outside the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg each Sunday since the school stopped flying the state flag in 2015. Photo by Ashton Pittman

On Sunday, June 28, the Mississippi Legislature passed the bill to remove Confederate symbolism from the state flag. Tate Reeves signed the bill into law two days later, just three months after he had declared Confederate Heritage Month. In November, Mississippians voted overwhelmingly to adopt the “New Magnolia” flag even as Reeves announced that he wanted to spend $3 million on a “Patriotic Education Fund,” which he said would counter “indoctrination in far-left socialist teachings that emphasize America’s shortcomings over the exceptional achievements of this country.”

April Grayson
April Grayson is working to memorialize all known victims of lynchings in Oxford and Lafayette County, including Nelse Patton. Courtesy April Grayson

After the early December meeting with the Lafayette County Board of Supervisors, April Grayson said she was disappointed that the board had not approved the lynching-victims marker’s installation yet, but she was not deterred. Grayson spoke openly about the ongoing process of and need for educating Mississippians about an often-painful history. That includes public officials.

“We are a group that is committed to challenging conversations across points of difference like this, and so we welcome the opportunity to engage more substantially with the board of supervisors,” Grayson told the Mississippi Free Press during an interview in December.

“Part of our goal is to help public officials realize that we can do this in a way that is productive and that is not going to leave them feeling like they’re being told that they’re terrible people,” she noted. 

Lydia Koltai agreed with Grayson and emphasized the importance of continuing to engage and educate fellow Mississippians. “It is a bit unreasonable to think we can just jump in and all be on the same level of understanding,” Koltai said.

Grayson herself has experienced the richness and pain of sharing these difficult experiences. In a MFP Voices piece last year, she discussed bonding in grief with the late son of Oxford lynching victim Elwood Higginbottom.

Rev. E.W. Higginbottom Sr.
Rev. E.W. Higginbottom Sr. attended a soil collection in March 2018 in memory of his father, sharecropper Elwood Higginbotham, who was lynched in Oxford, Miss., in 1935. The family fled Lafayette County in fear, losing everything they had. Rev. Higginbottom died April 29, 2020, from the coronavirus. Photo by Dr. Donald Cole

Rev. E.W. and I called each other from time to time, and in one of our last conversations, he called me to talk about my daddy,” she wrote. “They had met at the memorial for his own father, and he wanted to share in my grief after my father passed away. Our two fathers, one Black and one white, died in the most opposite ways because of that difference, and we their children had lives so very different because of all that history and injustice. Yet through it we found each other and created an unlikely relationship that changed both of our lives.”

This small group of Mississippi organizers and activists are not strangers to adversity, and they do not have plans to stop. Sonny Strauss, never taking pause in the comfort zone, tells me, “We can’t lose the momentum.”

Editor’s Note: One of the seven known victims of lynching in Lafayette County, Miss., was previously identified as Will Jackson. Subsequent to the publication of the article, Jackson’s name was changed to “unknown” on the lynching memorial marker’s language due to a lack of identifying evidence without our knowledge.

Read Mississippi Free Press’ coverage of Confederate iconography in our state, systemic racism and power struggles in higher education, and our full Race and Racism archive here

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