TUPELO • A Tupelo resident spoke to the City Council on Tuesday evening and implored the municipal officials to remove the state’s flag that bears Confederate symbolism from public buildings, relocate a Confederate monument in Tupelo, and rename several streets named after Confederate leaders or that relate to the Confederacy.
The speaker, Gary O’Neal, told the Council and the mayor that these symbols are ones “of hatred and oppression,” and even though the Confederacy is part of history, it should not be celebrated or memorialized.
Several people gathered inside City Hall to support O’Neal’s proposals and applauded his remarks.
“Today, it is painfully clear that black lives are still seen as expendable,” O’Neal said. “We cannot afford to hold onto these symbols of hatred and racism. My proposal is that the city aim to remove these racist symbols of our past and replace them with more unifying symbols so that we can make some progress towards not being identified by the worst part of our history.”
The Daily Journal spoke with almost all of the city’s elected officials to gather their response to O’Neal’s proposals and how they feel about Confederate symbols in Tupelo.
Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton told the Daily Journal that the state should have a new state flag and “it’s difficult to argue that that flag represents all Mississippians.” At a recent event, Shelton called the flag a “symbol of racism.”
Some of the street names that O’Neal suggested should be changed were Confederate Avenue, Robert E. Lee Drive, Rebel Drive, Beauregard Street and Pemberton Avenue.
Shelton said that he doesn’t believe that the Confederacy or Confederate leaders should be honored or celebrated, but changing the names of several streets in Tupelo is more complicated than people might realize. City officials would have to consult with emergency 911, the post office and homeowners to change a street.
“You get to consulting the homeowners on those streets and you have to think about when you’re changing their address you’re talking about requiring every resident on each of those streets to change their credit card information, their banking information, their driver’s license information, you name it,” Shelton said.
In Tupelo, a Confederate monument stands near the Lee County Courthouse and is on property owned by the county. The city would have no direct legal authority to relocate the monument, but it could ask the county government to move the statue.
The Mississippi Legislature passed the Mississippi Military Memorial Protection Act in 2006, which states that a government entity in the state cannot legally remove a military monument or memorial, which includes monuments to the Confederacy. However, if a governing body approves, it can relocate a monument to a “more suitable location.”
Shelton said he would “gladly support” a county effort to relocate the monument to either the battlefield site on West Main Street or to Brice’s Cross Roads near Baldwyn.
“There is no question about why the state of Mississippi seceded from the union,” Shelton said. “There’s no argument that it was a just cause. There’s no valid argument that it was a just cause. The argument about states rights – you can say that but you can’t ignore that the state’s right in question was that of slavery.”
Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington said that he would like to see the state’s flag changed, but believes that city leaders should continue to fly the flag unless citizens through a ballot vote or the Legislature votes to change or remove the flag.
Regarding the Confederate monument, he said that he couldn’t speak for county officials, but if they find an alternative location for the monument, then he would be fine with that action.
“As far as changing the names of the streets, I just don’t see the point in that,” Whittington said. “I would not be in favor of voting to change that. We can’t rewrite history. It would cost the city a lot of money.”
Ward 2 Councilman Lynn Bryan said he also believes the state flag should be changed, but unless the voters or the Legislature changes the flag, then city officials should continue to fly the flag.
“First of all, nobody ever complains about this unless something happens,” Lynn Bryan said. “So, to be honest with you, I’m not taking anybody seriously with this stuff. The flag will change. It’s going to change because there’s momentum now. It doesn’t represent everybody, and that’s what I’ve been saying.”
He said Confederate monuments should not be removed and does not believe that streets linked to Confederate symbols should be renamed.
“I certainly had more people call me about not renaming (the streets) than I have had people who are offended by it,” he said.
Ward 3 Councilman Travis Beard said he also believes that the state flag should continue to be flown unless it’s changed and doesn’t agree with renaming certain things linked to the Confederacy.
He said that he would not have an issue with the county if they voted to relocate the Confederate monument. But he said who he heard from some of the voters in his district that urged him not to rename streets that had ties to the Confederacy.
“They said if I wanted to change their address, they’d move,” Beard said. “I don’t think we can correct all of the errors of the past.”
Ward 4 Councilwoman Nettie Davis did not return requests for comment for this story.
Ward 5 Councilman Buddy Palmer said he would not be in favor of removing the current state flag from flying because doing so would be a “little bit of a cop out,” but does believe the state needs a new flag. He would also be opposed to renaming any streets.
“I am absolutely totally opposed to renaming our streets because I’m thinking ‘What’s next?’” Palmer said.
Ward 6 Councilman Mike Bryan said that he was “totally opposed” to every suggestion O’Neal spoke about and said he believes that the current flag should be flown and believes it is “ludicrous” to rename any street names.
“I’m not going to ask them to do anything because I don’t have an issue with that statue, and if a group of people out there that want it down, moved or whatever, they certainly have free speech to ask the board of supervisors or to lobby or protest to have it down,” he said.
Ward 7 Councilman Willie Jennings told the Daily Journal that he believes the current flag should not be flown from any public buildings, but he would have to study the names of streets before making an informed decision on whether they should be renamed.
“I think the monument should be removed,” Jennings said. “Where would you put it? That’s another discussion, but I think it should be removed from public property.”
O’Neal’s remarks come at a time when several municipalities and counties in the state have voted to take the state flag down and debate whether Confederate monuments should remain on county property.