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VICKSBURG, Miss. — Slavery, Gordon Cotton explains, “did some good for some people.”
A white retired journalist, Mr. Cotton is propped on a stool in his cluttered kitchen, holding court before another black reporter and myself. We showed up unannounced at his home just off a dirt road in a heavily wooded area on the outskirts of this city in the Deep South.
His great-great-grandmother owned about 30 slaves and “she provided nice little homes for them,” he says. “She provided clothing and food and medical care. She had one who made baskets, and she always bought his baskets.”
However society feels about slavery now, Mr. Cotton says, he won’t let it diminish his admiration for ancestors like his great-great-grandmother or spiritual forebears like Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president whom Mr. Cotton, 82, calls his hero.
“Looking back 150, 200 years ago, it was a way of life,” he says. “It may not have been right, but it was the way of life at the time.”
That personal connection to, and quick empathy for, the Old South has shaped Mr. Cotton’s view that Confederate monuments belong in the public square; that the Davises and Robert E. Lees of the world deserve to be honored, not shamed.
That belief, of course, is the source of a fierce debate, one that reached a violent climax a year ago when white supremacists, rallying against a proposal to remove a statue of General Lee from a public park in Charlottesville, Va., clashed with counterdemonstrators. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed when a white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd.
The ugly episode aggravated the country’s frayed racial dynamic — even more so after President Trump equated the counterprotesters with the white supremacists by blaming “many sides” for the violence.
A year later, public debate over Confederate iconography has quieted down. But have feelings really evolved? Are we any closer as a country to coming to terms with how to confront our shameful history, or are we quietly hurtling toward another eruption of violence?
I recently traveled through the South with Trymaine Lee, a NBC correspondent. Our trip took us through Virginia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Alabama.
We found that the legacy of the Confederacy has become so embedded in daily life that it will take more than the removal of a statue here or a plaque there to address it. To forget the atrocities that occurred on the serene plantations where you take prom pictures or walks with your family amid stone sculptures and bright flowers.
What’s left is a complicated calculus when it comes to finding common ground on the monument debate.
In some cases, the structures are simply too massive to remove — take the 351-foot obelisk honoring Jefferson Davis in his birthplace of Fairview, Ky. In others, as in Alabama, a law has been established to prohibit the removal of Confederate monuments.
But in many instances, Confederate memorials are not physical. They are better understood as emotional, spiritual and familial connections.
Mr. Cotton is a historian whose ancestors owned slaves and fought for the Confederacy. His house is decorated like a shrine to the rebellion. He has Confederate flags and Treasury notes alongside portraits of Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader. He also has racist iconography amid the clutter: a book of sheet music titled “Pickaninny Rag” with a caricature of a black boy on the cover; a CD of a white comedian who performs in blackface.
As we sit down for the interview, we ask him to spell his name. “C-O-T-T-O-N,” he says, then adds, matter-of-factly, “Cotton, just like you pick.”
Mr. Cotton lives near Brierfield, Jefferson Davis’s former estate. He also went to a school named for the Confederacy’s only president. Like many pro-Confederates in the South, Mr. Cotton plays down the role of slavery in the Civil War. He believes it had more to do with the North trying to control, and eventually invade, the South than anything else.
“He’s one of my heroes, and nobody will ever take that away from me,” he says of Davis. “You can take his statues down if you want to. They can destroy what they can, but they’ll never destroy the legend of the man.”
For Mr. Cotton and other Davis supporters, much of that legend was built on what Davis did before he became the president of the Confederacy. They see him as a heroic West Point graduate who served in the Mexican-American War, and as a United States senator representing Mississippi.
What they don’t highlight are his beliefs about slavery. Davis thought that the institution should be expanded and that black people were an inferior race. These white supremacist beliefs continued to shape American society long after the Civil War was over and efforts to integrate freed slaves gave way to an era of racially motivated killings.
That violence touched a generation of Southerners for whom the legacy of the Confederacy is also poignant, only for reasons very different from pro-Confederates like Mr. Cotton.
As Susie Jones browses an exhibit at the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Ala., she stops in her tracks when she comes across a name etched onto a gray wall: Milton Russell.
“This is my daddy’s cousin,” she says.
Mr. Russell was one of several dozen people who died from racially motivated violence to be honored in the exhibit, put together by the Southern Poverty Law Center. He was killed on Jan. 21, 1956, in an arson attack at his home in Belzoni, Miss.
The exhibit featured another person from Belzoni who was killed: the Rev. George Lee, murdered on May 7, 1955, for registering black voters.
“Reverend Lee used to be my neighbor,” Ms. Jones, who is black, adds.
He lived across the street and owned a store and ”kind of took care of all of the black people in the area.”
Ms. Jones, 66, now lives in Jacksonville. She is in Montgomery on a trip through the South with her granddaughters, ages 12 and 9. Her goal is to teach them about their African-American heritage, plenty of which can be found in Montgomery: From the bus stop where Rosa Parks boarded for her fateful ride, to the church where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a preacher.
But it also is a place steeped in Confederate lore.
The State Capitol features a gold star on its steps marking where Jefferson Davis took his oath of office and a tall column celebrating Confederate soldiers. There is a statue of Davis nearby, next to one of James Marion Sims, the “father of modern gynecology” who experimented on enslaved women without using anesthesia.
“It’s a reminder of hatred and all the wrongdoings that’s been done against African-Americans,” Ms. Jones says of Confederate symbols. “I do believe they have a right to their history, but not at the sake of ours. If you’re going to write part of the story, write the whole story. Tell what you did.”
For many black people, Confederate symbols often read like Do Not Enter signs. We felt this in the pits of our stomachs as we rolled up to Mr. Cotton’s home and were greeted by two cars with Confederate flags on the bumpers. The angst quickly subsided when Mr. Cotton, referred to us by a local resident, appeared from behind a green door and welcomed us into his home.
Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, if you live in the South, Confederate symbols come with the territory. You can barely walk without stubbing your toe on one.
My first two hotels were on thoroughfares named for Davis. Trymaine and I stayed at Anchuca, a bed-and-breakfast in Vicksburg, where Davis’s older brother Joseph once lived. Jefferson Davis State Park, at the obelisk site in Fairview, is one of the nicest places to have a cookout in the area, and indeed black people visit regularly.
Kitty Calhoun, who is white and a partner at a restaurant in Hopkinsville, Ky., says that she appreciates monuments like the obelisk for their artistic beauty, not their negative symbolism.
“I don’t try to think about the representation,” says Ms. Calhoun, 68. Rather, she adds, it is “the history that’s behind it, as far as it being there, how long it’s been there, is more what I’m into.”
But ignoring the misdeeds of Confederate leaders — seeing Jefferson Davis the statesman without seeing Jefferson Davis the slave owner — is not a luxury available to black people.
At the same time, the pride that descendants of the Confederacy have in their ancestors is very real and isn’t going to go away any time soon.
“We have to understand him from a very broad perspective,” Bertram Hayes-Davis says of his great-great-grandfather, Jefferson Davis.
Mr. Hayes-Davis, 69, is a living, breathing monument to his great-great-grandfather. When I met him at his home in Vicksburg, he was loose and inviting. He sometimes nestles into a chair once owned by Davis while channeling his great-great-grandfather’s thoughts on uniting the country after the war. He keeps a well-worn book of the Confederate constitution signed by Davis in a glass-encased bookshelf and a letter written by Davis over the fireplace mantel.
Mr. Hayes-Davis, who grew up in Colorado, knows full well the admiration that his name draws among certain communities in the South. But in a strange way, he may also be the conduit that we need to bridge the divide on Confederate monuments.
Mr. Hayes-Davis’s life’s mission is to prevent people — whether pro- or anti-Confederate — from reducing his great-great-grandfather’s legacy to his time as president of the Confederacy. He believes that racists have hijacked Confederate symbols in an effort to deepen the country’s racial divide.
While he says that people who support the removal of monuments are often misguided, Mr. Hayes-Davis also agrees that, if a statue offends someone, it should be moved to a private area where it could be used for teaching.
He is unafraid to point out Davis’s flaws — “Was he a white supremacist? Yes he was,” Mr. Hayes-Davis says, always adding that he was so much more.
Mr. Hayes-Davis’s moderated stance has put him at odds with staunch Confederate groups. Some of them, he says, cling to the past so tightly that they are willing to deny certain realities about the Confederacy and the war.
“They’re holding onto that one small piece of history,” he says. ”Their ancestor’s legacy as a soldier in the Confederate States of America.”
Susan Beachy contributed research.
John Eligon covers race for The Times. He speaks three languages fluently: English, German and Trinidadian slang. He didn’t cry at his wedding, but he did cry when Trinidad qualified for the 2006 World Cup. Watch the video of his journey through the South below and follow him on Twitter: @jeligon.
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