Opposing sides face off at Hamilton County Courthouse over Confederate statue dispute

Opposing sides face off at Hamilton County Courthouse over Confederate statue dispute

October 2nd, 2017 by Rosana Hughes in Local Regional News

Protestors of the A.P. Stewart statue as well as counter protestors stand on either side of the statue in front of the Hamilton County Courthouse Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, in downtown Chattanooga, Tenn. The NAACP and Mercy Junction staged a march and prayer vigil to call for the removal of the A.P. Stewart statue outside the Hamilton County Courthouse.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

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"Take it down, in Chatt Town," marchers yelled Sunday evening as they called for the removal of Confederate Gen. Alexander P. Stewart's bust from the Hamilton County Courthouse lawn.

The march came after the NAACP said it would begin efforts to remove the Confederate statue in July.

Chapter President Elenora Woods said the statue needs to be in a "more appropriate" place such as the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park or a museum.

The announcement sparked vigorous pushback from some community members who defended Stewart as a postwar peacemaker who helped plan and create the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.

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Moments before the march set off from Miller Plaza, word came of counterprotesters waiting at the courthouse. Woods told the crowd police would be present to ensure everyone's safety.

"Because it is government property, they have a right to be there," she said.

Marchers made their way along Market Street, singing "We Shall Overcome" and chanting slogans such as "Jim Crow has got to go." Peace signs adorned many posters, and others had slogans such as "Courthouses R neutral zones" and "White silence = violence."

Renee Hall, who is white, was one of the marchers. She said she wanted to show support for African-Americans and other people of color, because "if it's a symbol of racism to them, it needs to go."

"If folks want to get on their high horse about it being historical, no one is saying to destroy it," she said. "We're just saying to move it to a more appropriate place."

The Daughters of the Confederacy erected the memorial in 1919. The monument rests on a concrete pedestal that reads "C.S.A 1861-1865."

On the courthouse's front lawn the marchers gathered on the left side of the Stewart bust and a small group of counterprotesters lined up on the right.

Robert Lee Williamson carried a large Confederate flag and stood silently in opposition. Others held United States flags, while one woman held a Trump campaign sign and a man wore a Make America Great Again hat.

Williamson said the marchers were a "large group of misguided people."

"At more than one time in his life, [Stewart] spoke against slavery," he said. "He also was not a secessionist. He fought for the Confederacy, yes, for the state of Tennessee, which is a very honorable thing to do."

He said he doesn't like the "narrative that is being pushed," and he doesn't like "people lying about [his] heroes."

"It angers me," he said. "They can't say one thing bad about this man. Other than he fought for the Confederacy, so I guess that means everybody that fought for the Confederacy are bad people. I disagree with that opinion."

Williamson said he's been attacked several times for flying the Confederate flag.

"I had urine thrown on me, bricks thrown at me — one grazed my head, it didn't make contact," he said. "It's always the same people doing it too," referencing groups such as Antifa, or anti-fascists, who had a couple of representatives at the march.

Both sides doffed hats and bowed heads for prayers by several religious leaders, and some marchers went to speak to those on the opposite sidewalk.

Marcher Breon Thomas, a Navy veteran, said he wanted to understand where they were coming from, and he knew he had common ground with one of the counterdemonstrators because they were both veterans.

"I think most people have more alike than they have different," he said. "If you continue the conversation, hopefully you come to a place of resolution."

He said he thinks that is how to accomplish great things in life.

"Find somebody who disagrees with you and understand where they come from, because you could be missing something, you know?" he said. "And they could, too."

Afterward Thomas said his perception of Stewart may have changed a bit but he still doesn't like the idea statues honoring the Confederacy in front of a place of justice. He noted most people agree on preserving history even if they disagree on the method.

County Commissioner Greg Beck introduced a resolution last week aimed at seeking the state's permission to remove the bust from the courthouse grounds.

At that meeting, Commissioner Tim Boyd said if the Confederate statue is removed, no other statue or memorial should take its place.

On Sunday, Woods agreed, saying the Chattanooga NAACP's position is that no monument to any person should be on the courthouse lawn.

"It should be neutral ground," she said.

Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.

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