Opinion: Louisiana’s Confederate Courthouses

Fourteen years ago, I was a recent graduate of Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and a newly barred attorney who looked forward to seeking justice by “fighting for the little man” through our criminal justice system.  I envisioned a Louisiana justice system with courthouses featuring statues of Lady Justice holding a golden scale with her eyes blindfolded to the people who came before her.  The walls of these courthouses would be displayed with powerful quotes such as “…until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream…”  by Martin Luther King, Jr. or “America is today the hope of all honorable men who respect the rights of their fellow men and who believe in the principle of freedom and justice…” by Albert Einstein.  It was my belief that every citizen of Louisiana no matter their race, in this new millennium, had an opportunity to be treated fairly through the courts signifying the days of Jim Crow were long gone.  Then reality came crashing in on me within my first weeks of practice in 2003.

One of the first criminal cases that I handled involved an African American client who was charged with a crime in the town of Clinton, Louisiana.  Clinton is a small town about 35 miles north of Baton Rouge which sits in East Feliciana Parish.  When I met with my client at the courthouse that fall morning in 2003, the first image that seared into my brain was a huge Confederate monument erected right in front of the courthouse doors.  It felt as though I drove to the courthouse that morning in the DeLorean from Back to the Future straight into the 1860s.  There was no Lady Justice, there were no poetic quotes about justice and equality, there was only praise and reverence given to the Confederacy.  The monument featured a Confederate soldier on a pedestal erected in 1909.  How could I be so naïve?  I was sorely mistaken to believe that the short existence of the Confederacy in Louisiana would not continue to be placed on a pedestal and revered a century and a half later in front of the very courthouses that African Americans go to seek justice.

It wasn’t that I was new to the South and did not understand its history.  I was very schooled and seasoned in the history of the slave trade, the Civil War, the Black Codes,  Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement.  Although I was born in Baton Rouge, I was raised in Gulfport, Mississippi during my formative years from the age of 8 to 18 years old.  Before moving to Gulfport in the 80s, I did not even realize that I was a minority and I thought inequality only existed in South Africa because of the apartheid.  However, once I lived Mississippi, I realized that the tortured history of African Americans in the South had always surrounded me with constant reminders from the “Stars and Bars” that is prominently displayed today on the Mississippi state flag to the worship by the locals of Beauvoir the home of Jefferson Davis which lies in nearby Biloxi, Mississippi.  The turning point in my life came at the age of 9 when I watched a full day marathon of the miniseries Roots in commemoration of its 10th year Anniversary. The miniseries had me in tears, in pain, in disgust and eventually in pride to see how African Americans stayed strong throughout America’s original sin. 

Soon I began to not rely on history books given out by the State of Mississippi public schools which continued to give adoration and respect to the Confederacy and simply glossed over slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.  Being that my mother was a librarian, I found it easy to check out books and educate myself on the true, unfiltered history of America.  I will never forget a discussion that I had with my middle school Mississippi History teacher in 1990 when she told the class to look up the definition of a confederate government to understand why the Southerners needed to secede from the Union.  I promptly raised my hand and boldly asked, “Can we also look up the definition of slavery to see why the Southerners really wanted to secede from the Union?”  Of course, I was put out of the class for the day for being sassy, disruptive and overly enjoying the Arsenio Hall barks that my African American classmates delivered to me.  In high school, when I told a white teacher that I planned on attending Southern University, she gave me a smile and told me she was so proud and that I would love Hattiesburg (the home of the University of Southern Mississippi).  I quickly corrected her and explained that Southern University is a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  She immediately used all her might to hold back her grimace and asked me to consider staying closer to home and going to J.D. Community College for two years.  By the way, J.D. stands for Jefferson Davis and is a community college in Biloxi.  I too, like the teacher, held back my grimace and simply responded, “I don’t think Jefferson Davis would’ve wanted me hanging out at his school.”

By 1996, I discovered Southern University was indeed the perfect choice for me to continue my studies in the history of slavery and the African American experience in America while majoring in Political Science. On this HBCU campus, the historical plaques and persons placed on pedestals besides our distinguished alum were of P.B.S. Pinchback (the first African American Governor of Louisiana and of any state in 1872 during Reconstruction), T.T. Allain (African American Louisiana State Legislature during Reconstruction), Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Owens and other African American Civil Rights leaders to name a few. For four years at Southern, I was shielded from the Confederate propaganda that I grew up with in Mississippi and soon considered it a distant memory. 

In 2000, I was accepted into University of Mississippi School of Law (a formal way of saying Ole Miss Law School) and decided that I would visit the campus to determine if I wanted to attend.  In 1970, my father was admitted to and attended Ole Miss Law School and lasted one semester before being told by the Dean that he was only accepted for the purpose of saying that “Negroes are allowed to attend but that doesn’t mean you were ever meant to graduate…”  Luckily, for my father and other African Americans in pursuit of a legal career, Southern University School of Law existed opening the doors of opportunity to a law degree that could not be obtain at other majority white institutions in the South.  I guess there was a part of me that wanted to prove some 30 years later that things had changed.  However, the imagery of the Confederacy was still prominent on the campus of Ole Miss along with its Confederate statues and halls named after Confederate leaders.  I lasted about 30 minutes on my tour before I gave up.  To this day, my father still teases me by saying he lasted four months at recently integrated Ole Miss and 30 years later I could not last an hour on a tour of the campus before quitting.  I know today Ole Miss has made strides in removing certain Confederate plaques and names off of halls and forbidding the “Stars and Bars” from being prominently displayed throughout campus which is commendable, but in 2000 coming from an HBCU, Ole Miss was a shock to my system after being away from Mississippi for four years.

In the 14 years that I’ve had the honor to practice law in the State of Louisiana, I’ve handled cases in many Parishes outside of Baton Rouge.  I soon discovered an awkward theme to many of the courthouses I visited to represent my clients:  That over 150 years later, a Confederate’s home still rests at our Louisiana Courthouses.

  St. Francisville which sits in West Feliciana Parish, is a town frozen in the antebellum era and is about 40 miles northwest of Baton Rouge.  This town’s main economic revenue is generated from tourists across the nation that long for that Gone with the Wind type of nostalgia which can be seen from the 19th century design of the homes and buildings.  At the town’s courthouse, there is a Confederate monument that sits at the entrance which reads, “For the dust of our heroes hath hallowed the sod… Where they struggled for Right and for Home and for God.”  Again, a demonstration of heroic reverence of the Confederacy with no mention of what these “heroes” actually fought and died believing.  This sanitized version of the Confederacy is paraded in front of every African American in the very place that all Louisianans go to seek justice and equality under the law.   As an African American going through the doors of the St. Francisville courthouse, you are constantly reminded that the Confederate cause was a just cause and seemingly endorsed by our state government because of its location.  I remember talking to other attorneys (white and black) years ago about requesting a change of venue for a criminal case with an African American defendant because of the Confederate monument, the all-white prosecutors and the all-black jailed defendants, but I was quickly laughed out of the courthouse that day. 

I’ve made appearances in court in the City of Shreveport where there is a Confederate monument outside the courthouse which features a Confederate soldier and four Confederate generals:  Henry Watkins Allen, P.G.T. Beauregard, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Evidently this monument was erected in the early 1900s and still stands today serving as a reminder to African American attempting to seek justice at the Caddo Parish courthouse that the state government still validates what these men stood for in the Confederacy. Many people walked by the monument apparently paying no attention to its audaciousness, but I stood before the stone figurine for almost five minutes wishing that those men commemorated could be alive just to see me, an African American, walk into the courthouse with my brief case and a white client.  

There are similar sanitized Confederate displays at several courthouses throughout Louisiana from Rapides Parish to Tensas Parish and beyond that I’ve witnessed firsthand.  The feeling of frustration I get as an African American attorney to know that our courthouses are being used as propaganda and to send subliminal messages to African Americans should not be accepted in America in 2017.  

Some will argue that it is a slippery slope to begin removing Confederate monuments asking “where will it stop?”  To that I would counter that it was a very slippery slope to erect said monuments as a subtle reminder to African Americans in their attempts to seek civil rights and a more inclusive society after fighting for America in World Wars I and II.  Both my paternal and maternal great-great grandfathers were born into slavery in Mississippi.  Both my paternal and maternal grandfathers fought for America in World War II.  The hope that they all had for my generation was that we would not endure the discrimination and second-class citizenry that they experienced on a day to day basis.  Therefore today, there is no better time in our history to remove these reminders of racial intolerance from our courthouses and place them in a more suitable location such as a museum or a Confederate cemetery.  This is not about erasing history, because we all know that is impossible, it’s clearly about making the Confederate displays unwelcome at our courts of law. 

In May 2017, Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans said it best, “there’s a difference in the remembrance of history and the reverence of it…” in his call for removal of Confederate monuments from public property.  I could not agree more with Mayor Landrieu’s sentiment.  Many southern whites, who believe revering the Confederacy is a part of their heritage and still view the people who fought for the cause of the South in the 1860s as heroes, will hotly debate that memorials in front of our courthouses are more than appropriate.  Still, what cannot be debated is the feelings of pain and disgust in my heart and the hearts of many people of many races across America when we see such Confederate artifacts being displayed, not as an ode to true history, but as reverence to an ungodly cause.  It would be absurd to find no shame in a Jewish person in Germany in 2017 entering a courthouse with Nazi monuments and symbols engrained in its architecture.  Nevertheless, this same absurdity is taking place every day in front of not just Louisiana courthouses but courthouses all over the South. This state has such a rich 200-year history with many worthy and less divisive causes we can commemorate at our courthouses, other than the four-year episode of the Civil War ending in the Confederacy’s defeat.  Commemorating the true history of our people, black and white, Creole and Cajun, Native American and immigrant, is what a tolerant society should do at the doorsteps of its courthouses.   

This is why I implore the Louisiana State Bar Association and the Louisiana Supreme Court to draft a resolution for presentation before the Louisiana Legislature and stand for the principles of Lady Justice by requesting the removal of any divisive Confederate symbols and monuments from our courthouses.  These monuments don’t belong where people of all races go to seek justice, fairness and equality, because we all can agree that the Confederacy never stood for that. 

 

 

Writer: Attorney Niles B. Haymer

Email Niles@NilesHaymer.com