Bentonville, a town grappling with the power of symbols in its growing community, has benefited from a few courageous voices speaking for the many in a new saying: “This is not us.”
Photo courtesy of Shame of Bentonville
The peaceful movement to remove a confederate statue from Bentonville square didn’t happen overnight. It had been brewing for a number of years under the weight of politics, evolving social dynamics and the ever-present elephant in the room:
How can a region build a welcoming and inclusive environment around a historical symbol that recalls an era of racial terror?
The wake of protests and a surge to acknowledge the plight of Black lives in America this past summer brought renewed energy in the push to remove the statue for good — a move that came to fruition this past September through the work of local government taking action and reaching an agreement with the statue’s owners.
Bentonville, a town grappling with the power of symbols in its growing community, has benefited from a few courageous voices speaking for the many in a new saying:
“This is not us.”
A local reckoning
When Sheree Miller first came to Bentonville, she would go through a coping process that Black families before her and many after her recall experiencing in this new place in Northwest Arkansas they would learn to call home.
“When I moved here 26 years ago, the judge that I worked for, I asked him about the monument,” said Ms. Miller who would soon come to learn that the statue, a fixture of the community since 1908, had become a part of life for those in town even in 1995.
“I would eat across and in front of that thing to make a point to myself and for the community to see — there are Black people here now.”
Standing tall in the center of the Bentonville square, the confederate statue was hard to ignore. Outside of the headlines touting Bentonville as a rising best place to live, scores of residents, newcomers and tourists buzzed around a town center that surrounded a generic Confederate statue placed during the Jim Crow era.
This would underscore a number of efforts from local businesses, corporations and government initiatives to attract and retain a diverse workforce in the region.
Community Action and Persistence
Ms. Miller certainly wasn’t alone in her feelings toward this statue. Years later, tensions around the statue would come to a head following nationwide protests of racially-motivated violence witnessed in Charlottesville.
“The true revelation came to me in 2017. We were down on the square, and it was a host of people there. A young woman named Amy Gillespie got up and she voiced what I had thought and what I said to a few people,” recalls Ms. Miller. “But she said it out loud in a huge crowd and circulated the petition.”
The largest petition started on Change.org by an organization called Ozark Indivisible, held the signatures of people who did not want the monument on the square. It would serve as motivation for Ms. Miller to collaborate with two other individuals, Asele Mack and Trevor Dane, on the Shame of Bentonville Facebook page, taking ownership of that petition and promoting it to the public.
“We had that petition. We talked to people about how they felt, and we gauged that about 80% were with the removal and about 20% were not,” Ms. Miller said.
From then on, she set about meeting with a number of officials to present proposals, pictures of monument alternatives and content ideas for students and residents to reimagine the space on the square.
By the summer of 2019, she even took to sitting on the square and advocating at the farmers market with Mr. Dane and Ms. Mack, who viewed each other as a team with a shared goal of imploring local leadership to act.
“The way we fit in, what we tried to do was provide a sitting at the statue and a voice for those in the community that had a similar view of the statue — to give people a chance to advocate,” said Mr. Dane.
Photo courtesy of Shame of Bentonville
Language and education
Ms. Miller credits one word as the key to success in the movement: Relocate.
“Asele gave us this important word to say when we were down on that square. We did not say we wanted to ‘destroy’ it,” she said in reference to the statue. “We said we wanted to ‘relocate it.’”
Another key element in the local movement’s success was the use of education to empower them in making bold statements backed by historical facts.
“We wanted the statue to be relocated — the number one goal was off the square. The second goal was for the statue to be put in a place or location where it could be put into historical context,” said Mr. Dane.
They also found that a lot of the people they spoke with on the square simply didn’t know what the statue represented or any of its history.
“We got to learn a lot of the specific stuff about the statue. The fact that it’s a generic confederate soldier, the fact that it’s been there since 1908, the fact that it’s not a civil war monument, but a relic of the Jim Crow era 40 plus years after the Civil War,” said Mr. Dane. “I like to think we got some people thinking a little bit.
“The education part of the movement needs to continue. We need to keep teaching about it, talking about it and keep that conversation going because it’s still here and we need to do everything we can to fit it in the right context and share with people what that statue really represents.”
New symbols and artistic reflection
The activists in Bentonville also believe that symbols matter. When the statues come down, what will take their place? And what role will art play in shedding light on our social movements?
“There’s all types of art that are helping to put a spotlight on the removement of the monuments here in America,” said Ms. Miller. “Art is being used to give something to us as Americans that we can visually see, hear and feel about the movement.”
Local artist Octavio Logo holds a similar sentiment about the role of art in the wake of protest and social movements.
“Coming from Mexican muralism showed me that art is very serious — kind of like always saying something,” said Mr. Logo. “I think that it’s amazing that things are happening and the statue came down. This is the moment of change that we were looking for.”
“No one wanted a mural like ‘No Justice, No Peace’ on their walls before,” he said, noting the uptick in diverse public art in Northwest Arkansas.
Mr. Logo represents a cadre of artists in the region who have answered the call for works that take inspiration from social justice movements — works they hope will stand to serve as reminders for change and symbols of hope rather than substitutes for racial healing.
Northwest Arkansas is no stranger to eye-catching murals. The expansive art pieces are peppered throughout our streets from the busiest corridors in Fayetteville to quaint corners in downtown Rogers and Bentonville.
Mr. Logo’s own work includes an expressive protest piece featuring an image of George Floyd and the previously mentioned “No Justice, No Peace” mural on the corner of College Avenue and Dickson Street.
He believes we need a shift beyond the wish to simply beautify public spaces and work to address social concerns through our art.
“In general, people are ready and hungry for justice and change. And I think that everyone everywhere — artists, musicians, poets, visual artists — everyone is embracing that, “ said Mr. Logo. “I think that altogether, we are bringing something, like some winds of change.”
Keep the movement going
While the goal to peacefully remove the statue from Bentonville square has come to pass, the movement carries on.
Although they and other activists were not at the table when the final agreement was struck to remove the statue, they had a moment on the square to rejoice its seven-part removal months after celebrating the initial announcement on June 1st of this year.
Using the Shame of Bentonville social media platform, the team has used their story to inspire other groups looking to achieve the same thing and serve as an example of how these statues can come down peacefully.
“We’re doing whatever we can to support the group in Fort Smith trying to move their statue,” said Mr. Dane, who was also preparing for a speaking engagement with a group out of Kentucky that has been following along with the movement taking place in Bentonville.
Ms. Miller did note there was a shift in the attitude and energy around the city now.
“Bentonville has changed. We feel so much more confident about the removal of that monument from the square.”