“I freaking love that monument,” a guy screams out a car window as he zooms past the group of protestors gathered near the Confederate Memorial of the Wind in Orange, Texas, on MLK Day. Among them are members of the NAACP, the Southeast Texas Progressives, and our friends Tracie and Jeremy Parzen, with whom we’ve tagged along for the two-hour journey east of Houston.
At a time when many Confederate monuments are coming down, this one is still under construction. The brainchild of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Texas division, the memorial broke ground in 2013 and features 13 pillars, one for each Confederate state. There are plans for a walkway and 32 flagpoles, which would fly various large Confederate flags visible to the nearly 55,000 cars that pass by on nearby I-10 each day.
The thing is right on MLK Drive.
Tracie, who is from Orange—and the daughter of a well-known Methodist minister here who, today, marched with the NAACP for the first time in his life—says the monument is not at all reflective of her hometown. “It needs to be repurposed,” she says, “to reflect the values of the people.”
It’s a small group out today, 14 people in all. Tracie’s sign reads, “The time comes when silence is betrayal.” A woman slows down to cuss out the protestors as a semi releases its noxious fumes in a toxic cloud that billows overhead. But no one is out visiting the monument or defending it, and dozens give the protestors thumbs-up and honks and waves of support.
In its current state, the memorial isn’t much to look at, just a begrimed bandstand-like structure whose cracking and peeling cement pillars are in desperate need of a pressure washing. The grass is dead. The land on which it stands, bought by the Sons of Confederate Veterans in 2010 and currently appraised at $10,410, is cheap—the reason, organizers say, for its location, which they maintain wasn’t meant as an affront.
After learning about the monument in 2013, the city denounced it at the urging of area residents, nearly 30 percent of whom are African American, and enforced new regulations to control the size of any flags. It even tried to buy back the land, according to city attorney Jack Smith. But because the monument sits on private property—one of 30 such Confederate memorials nationwide—it’s protected under the First Amendment. “As long as that thing sits there and they mow the grass,” says Smith, “there’s very little we can do.”
So far, the Sons of Confederate Veterans have relied on tax-deductible donations to fund the site, but nothing has happened here for three years. For $1,100, someone can sponsor a flagpole; memorial bricks and benches run between $50 and $800. Flagpoles have been ordered, Marshall Davis, a rep for the SCV, tells us later when reached over the phone, but he doesn’t know exactly how many or if they’ve been paid for.
On this day, there are no bricks or benches or fences or nameplates or signage; no parking or wheelchair accessibility, though both are required by the city. There’s just the weather-ravaged memorial and a single flagpole, where, in 2016, a lesser-known Confederate symbol, the Trans-Mississippi regimental flag, was flown for several months.
The soft-spoken former president of the NAACP Orange chapter, Rev. Franklin Gans, is a busy man. He went to college in Mississippi in the ’60s, and has spent his life participating in non-violent social justice. Today, wearing slacks and a beanie, he’s already marched in town and been interviewed by TV and print media outlets, including the Orange Leader. “For it to be right here on MLK,” he told the local paper, “I’m in support of those protesting.”
Gans stands on the corner as long as he can. “Whew, my hip,” he finally says, before departing. No sooner is he gone, then a car pulls up and a man asks the protestors why they aren’t at work. We are, they say. Another man wants to know, simply, “Why?”
Later, we will ask Davis the same question about the memorial. “If we remove Confederate symbols across the South,” he’ll argue, “we’re erasing our history.”
But if you erect new Confederate symbols—symbols that represent slavery, white supremacy, hate, and intimidation—in a busy area of a town that doesn’t want it, what does that say about our future?
“It’s hurtful. It’s offensive,” says Tracie Parzen. “People who want to keep the monument tend to have this mantra that nobody cares. That it’s not offensive to anyone, and it’s not a big deal. That’s a lie.”