Thursday evening, a group of roughly 40 people gathered in Pioneer Park Cemetery, steps away from the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, where Dallas’ Confederate War Memorial ascends more than 60 feet in the air. The statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Albert Johnson, and Jefferson Davis dominate their surroundings; downtown tends to disappear behind the trees. The group, organized by Eric Ramsey and his In Solidarity Movement, was there to protest the existence of Confederate monuments throughout the city and to call upon the mayor and the council to remove them, following the lead of others throughout the south.
“What we’re trying to do here is we’re trying to correct lies about the past,” said Michael Phillips, one of the speakers at the event. “A lot of people are trying to defend these monuments as quote-unquote history and what I’ve said is ‘This is not history, this is propaganda.’ There’s no context for these monuments, they don’t explain the connection to the Confederacy to slavery. And there’s really no way to contextualize this where this would make sense.”
Phillips, a former reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a scholar of race relations and currently teaches at Collin County Community College. He’s an outspoken critic of monuments and imagery of the Confederacy in Dallas, and has called for their removal regularly, most recently in an op-ed, written with Edward Sebesta, in The Dallas Morning News.
Not everyone at the protest was in favor of removing the monuments. About 10 men, two of whom were carrying the Confederate Battle Flag, were also present. For the most part, they hung around the edges speaking among themselves, giving reluctant interviews to the TV news crews present. (They would not go on record with me.) And for the most part, the rally was what could be considered humdrum. That changed when Michael Waters began to speak.
Waters, the founding pastor of Joy Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E) Church, spoke forcefully and vividly about the shooting at the Emanuel A.M.E Church in South Carolina, carried out by the white racist Dylann Roof in 2015. “I want you to hear the gunshots that rained forth in the bottom of that church,” Waters said. “I want you to see that young man reload to do it all over again.” He then issued a challenge to the mayor and City Council to ensure that Dallas not become the next Charleston.
The imagery of Roof’s massacre and his penchant for symbols of the Confederacy drew the ire of the counter-protesters, with one yelling, “We hate that little bastard!” From there, any semblance of organization at the rally dissolved.
Those for and against the removal of the Confederate monuments were suddenly grouped together, shouting talking points at one another, often incoherently. One counter protester, George Rick, who claimed to have family ties to the area dating back 150 years, stepped forward to express his views.
“These monuments here, to me, when I look at these monuments I don’t see slavery, I don’t see racists,” Rick said. “You know what I see? … What I see is memories of the people that suffered during the Civil War. Not just white people. I’m talking about everybody.”
Like Waters before him, Rick was frequently interrupted by shouts and accusations from the crowd. Unlike Waters, though, Rick engaged those confronting him and spoke about a race war that began in the 1700s. At this point, the gathering resembled a Facebook argument more than anything else. This exchange got the most play on the evening newscast, between Waters and a bearded man in a blue shirt holding a Confederate flag (who wouldn’t give his name):
Waters: Why do you carry that flag?
Man: Because this is my heritage! My family fought to save their farm under that flag!
Waters: Who was working that farm?
Man: My family was!
Waters: Who was working that farm?
Man: They were poor! Do you know how much a slave cost back then?
Those favoring the removal of the monuments immediately began singing “We Shall Overcome” while those opposed walked away singing “Dixie.” One even shouted, “God bless the Confederacy!” The crowd soon dispersed.
Through it all, Dallas’ Confederate War Memorial stood looming overhead, as divisive as it ever was.