“If those who support the preservation of historic monuments in Mississippi were slightly worried before, they should be a lot more worried now.”
With Gov. Kay Ivey signing a bill into law in Alabama protecting monuments over 40-years old from being renamed or removed, some in Mississippi have questioned if state monuments here needed additional protection. A report on WLBT featured state Rep. John Moore assuring viewers that Mississippi monuments were safe thanks to a law passed in 2013.
“Over the years, people have tried to change those statutes to make them harder or loosen them up,” Moore told the reporter. “I don’t really see us making any changes in the law this year, though I’m sure there will be an attempt just because of the recent situation but I don’t see us changing. We have a fairly tight law now.”
“Tight?” Only if that means confusing.
Governor Bryant sent WLBT a statement saying he would be opposed to any effort to remove historic monuments or landmarks of any kind. But the way the law is written and the way commissions are conferred authority from the state, it might not be the governor’s decision.
Mississippi Code (§ 55-15-81) was adopted in 2013 to protect historic monuments against attempts to alter them.
The updated Mississippi Code Section from 2016 reads in the first paragraph that “None of the following items, structures or areas may be relocated, removed, disturbed, altered, renamed or rededicated.” The law then goes on to list several historic conflicts and wars, and the associated memorials as protected.
However, in the very next section the law designates that the governing authority “may move the memorial to a more suitable location if it is determined that the location is more appropriate to displaying the monument.”
So, the monument can’t be relocated, but the governing body can decide to move it?
See the problem?
The governing body in these cases are all mashups of different city and county commissions that have had authority conferred to them by the state. Some of the commissions are specifically created in the statute to administer control over specific battlefields, monuments and parks. But, according to section 2 of the law that Rep. Moore says protects historic monuments, a commissions could decide at any time to do the same thing done in New Orleans, to move the monument to a site determined to be more appropriate, like a museum.
If those who support the preservation of historic monuments in Mississippi were slightly worried before, they should be a lot more worried now. This law doesn’t protect any monument from being moved. It spreads the authority in confusing ways into a labyrinth of bureaucracy, enough to make it more difficult for citizens to determine which entity and what level of government is actually responsible for the action. It’s a government patchwork that provides bureaucrats a way to play a shell-game.
Below is the full code section in Mississippi law regarding monument and memorial protection.
“Title 55 – Parks and Recreation
Chapter 15 – Commemorative Parks and Monuments
Alteration of Historical Monuments and Memorials (§ 55-15-81)
§ 55-15-81. Alteration of historical monuments and memorials prohibited; sanctions
(1) None of the following items, structures or areas may be relocated, removed, disturbed, altered, renamed or rededicated: Any Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican-American War, War Between the States, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War, War in Iraq or Native American War’s statues, monuments, memorials or nameplates (plaques), which have been erected on public property of the state or any of its political subdivisions, such as local, municipal or county owned public areas, and any statues, monuments, memorials, nameplates (plaques), schools, streets, bridges, buildings, parks preserves, reserves or other public items, structure or areas of the state or any of its political subdivisions, such as, local, municipal or county owned public areas, which have been dedicated in memory of, or named for, any historical military figure, historical military event, military organization or military unit.
(2) No person may prevent the public body responsible for maintaining any of the items, structures or areas described above from taking proper measures and exercising proper means for the protection, preservation, care, repair or restoration of those items, structures or areas. The governing body may move the memorial to a more suitable location if it is determined that the location is more appropriate to displaying the monument.
(3) This section shall not apply to items, structures or areas located on property owned or acquired by the Mississippi Transportation Commission which may interfere with the construction, maintenance or operation of public transportation facilities.”
HB 339 was introduced in the Mississippi House in 2016 to provide penalties against anyone who broke the monument alteration law, including members of the governing authority. The bill died in committee.
However, HB 339 would not have closed the loophole allowing commissioners sole authority to move the monument to a “more appropriate” location for display.
The 2016 bill would have amended the law to add that “any member of a governing body who votes for or otherwise causes an action that would be in violation of subsection (1) of this section, and such action is actually realized, shall be personally liable and punished in accordance with subsection (4) of this section. A member of a governing body shall not be punished for voting for an action to move a memorial to a more suitable location as provided for in subsection (2)(a) of this section.”
This, of course, would have only exacerbated the contradiction as it would have added punitive measures without defining the subjective term “more appropriate”.
To use Rep. John Moore’s term, this law is in desperate need of being “tightened up.”
The role of these commissions should be clarified in the law to restrict any attempts to permanently move a monument without prior approval of the voters in that jurisdiction, unless it is for reasons of road construction, utility construction or other issues that might damage the monument.
State law should exist to restrict authority of small commissions and boards not directly accountable to voters. Lawmakers should ensure that the character of the past isn’t so easily swept away by the whims of the present. This law as it is currently written doesn’t go far enough to provide that protection.