Rep. Karl Oliver’s Winona: Divided long before he proposed lynching

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Larrison Campbell, Mississippi Today

Downtown Winona, represented by Karl Oliver in the Mississippi Legislature

WINONA — Arthur Forrest has lived here for all of his 56 years, just two years longer than his state representative, Winona-born Karl Oliver, who incited a national uproar last weekend when he called for the lynching those responsible for removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans.

Winona resident Arthur Forrest

Forrest doesn’t know Oliver personally, but he knows of his family, as do many in Winona. In fact, the Oliver Funeral Home, which has been owned by four generations of Olivers, is just a three-minute walk down the train tracks from Forrest’s front porch.

Still, Forrest, who is African American, said he never has considered using the funeral home’s services for his own family.

“It’s a segregated funeral home,” Forrest said. “He deals with the white race.”

Forrest was quick to clarify that this is not an official policy of Oliver Funeral Home, but a byproduct of a town where the local high school only integrated its prom within the last decade. And although Winona is over 50 percent African American, none of the 29 deceased listed on the funeral home’s website this week are black.

So Forrest said he wasn’t surprised on Monday when he heard Oliver’s comments criticizing the removal of four Confederate monuments in New Orleans.

“If the, and I use this term extremely loosely, ‘leadership’ of Louisiana wishes to, in a Nazi-ish fashion, burn books or destroy historical monuments of OUR HISTORY, they should be LYNCHED!” Oliver wrote in a Facebook post Saturday evening.

After re-reading Oliver’s comments, Forrest looked up. He was silent a moment.

“It’s divided, the town. No need to beat around the bush about it. For me, being here more than 55 years, thinking of Karl. It’s sort of a surprise what he said. Not that that’s what he’s thinking, but that he’d say it. … But that’s the temperature here. Now you’re in Winona.”

Kathryn Harrison

For some of Oliver’s constituents, his comments weren’t as much a surprise as a relief. In a picturesque storefront within view of Forrest’s front porch, but across the train tracks that bisect this small town, Kathryn Harrison, an older woman with a smart white bob, folds donated clothes and stacks them in a bin.

Like Forrest, she has known Oliver and his family for years. And his willingness to say what others won’t is one of the things she likes best about him.

“He’s a true Southern gentleman and a Christian, and he’s speaking his convictions,” Harrison said. “And most everybody here, they wanted him elected because he would stand on his convictions.”

Funeral parlor to the statehouse

Karl Oliver grew up in Winona and received an associate’s degree from Northwest Community College in Senatobia.

Oliver’s wife, Lynn, is a teacher at Winona Elementary School, according to the school’s website.

His first legislative attempt came in 2006 when he ran in a special election for state senate against five other hopefuls, including fellow Winonan Lydia Graves Chassaniol, who would go on to win the seat.

Oliver, who spent 24 years as coroner for Montgomery County, threw his hat in the ring again in early 2015, this time for the Mississippi House seat vacated by six-term Rep. Billy Howell of Kilmichael.

The population of Mississippi House District 46 mirrors the racial breakdown in the state. Approximately 62 percent of the district identifies as white, and 35 percent identifies as African American, according to the website Statistical Atlas.

Appealing to conservative voters in District 46, Oliver wrote an op-ed in local newspapers.

Rep. Karl Oliver, R-Winona

“Having lived here my entire life and worked in Winona for 30 years, I realize, as do these voters, the importance of keeping District 46 aligned with the like-minded conservative values that make this great state business friendly,” Oliver, then 51 wrote.

Many of the state’s prominent industry groups lined up to support Oliver.

Campaign finance records show that he raised $25,206 for that first campaign. Oliver has loaned himself $7,500. His next largest contributor was Empower Mississippi, a group that advocates for charter schools and other forms of school choice.

Asked about Oliver’s comments, Empower Mississippi’s founder, Grant Callen, said in a text message to Mississippi Today: “Rep. Oliver’s comments were unconscionable and deeply insensitive. I’m glad he apologized swiftly.”

After state leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, publicly condemned Oliver’s comments, Oliver issued an apology on Monday.

Oliver also received campaign support from Wichita-based Koch Industries; the company’s top executives, Charles and David Koch, have given generously to Republican candidates and conservative campaigns over the years.

Other backers include Mississippi Manufacturers Association, Mississippi Home Builders Association, Mississippi Poultry Association, Mississippi Association of Realtors, Mississippi Bankers Association and Mississippi Power Co.

In the District 46 race, Oliver faced off against Matt Bennett and Shed Hunger IV in the Republican primary. After defeating Hunger to capture the nomination, Oliver locked horns with Democrat Strachan in the general election, whom Oliver beat by more than 1,000 votes. 

Since winning the seat, Oliver has been appointed to eight committees and as vice chairman of the Forestry Committee, an appointment Speaker Philip Gunn rescinded after Oliver’s comments came to light.

Rep. Kevin Horan, a Democrat who lives in nearby Grenada, has known Oliver for 25 years and said he was “very surprised” to see Oliver’s comments.

Oliver’s short legislative career has been marked by controversy. Before the lynching remark, Oliver received backlash in 2016 after telling a Gulfport woman he “could care less” about her concerns regarding tax breaks being considered by the Legislature. He also suggested she move out of the state.

“I see you are not a native to the Great State of Mississippi nor do you and I have similar political views,” he wrote to Becky Guidry. “I appreciate you going to the trouble to share yours with me, but quite frankly, and with all due respect, I could care less.”

In that case, Oliver issued no apology, telling the Clarion-Ledger at the time: “This isn’t news. … Twist it any way you want.”

‘The word lynched’

The most recent maelstrom came late on May 20, when Oliver made his Facebook post accompanied by a photograph of the Robert E. Lee statue.

For a day the post went largely unnoticed, generating 204 likes, including two from House colleagues, Rep. John Read, R-Gautier, and Rep. Doug McLeod, R-Lucedale.

But when the backlash began Sunday, on and off social media, it was swift and furious. By late Monday morning, national news outlets had picked up the story. And the state’s top Republicans, including the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker, had each issued blistering condemnations, demanding Oliver apologize.

“I condemn the comments recently posted on Facebook by Rep. Karl Oliver,” said Speaker of the House Philip Gunn. “… Using the word ‘lynched’ is inappropriate and offensive. We call on Rep. Oliver to apologize.”

After speaking with Gunn Monday morning, Oliver issued his apology.

“In an effort to express my passion for preserving all historical monuments, I acknowledge the word ‘lynched’ was wrong,” Oliver said.

“I am very sorry. It is in no way, ever, an appropriate term,” he continued. “I deeply regret that I chose this word, and I do not condone the actions I referenced, nor do I believe them in my heart. I freely admit my choice of words was horribly wrong, and I humbly ask your forgiveness.”

Rep. Oliver apologizes for using hate language

Oliver’s choice to use the word ‘lynched’ harks to an era when white supremacists in the Deep South used brutal violence in an attempt to cow African Americans into accepting second class status. In fact, one of the most famous murders of the Civil Rights era was the 1954 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in nearby Money, which is in Oliver’s district.

Another high-profile lynching occurred in 1937 in Duck Hill, which also lies in what is now Oliver’s district. During that episode, two black men — Roosevelt Townes and Robert “Bootjack” McDaniels — accused of killing a Winona store owner were kidnapped by a lynch mob, chained to a tree and burned to death. Up to 500 people watched the lynching, gruesome photos of which ran in newspapers.

“It was all done very quickly, quietly and orderly,” a deputy sheriff said at the time.

For Kathryn Harrison, this history has little bearing on how people should read Oliver’s post. When asked if she, like Gov. Phil Bryant and Speaker Gunn, thought “lynch” was an offensive term, especially in the context of preserving the Confederacy, she shook her head.

“‘Lynching?’ Not really,” Harrison said with a laugh. “Because I’ve used it myself, and I think Karl used it off the cuff.  I don’t think he meant go down there and, you know, kill someone.”

George Shute, an older white man who was running errands downtown in his navy pickup Monday, thinks the Confederate context is exactly what makes Oliver’s comments so powerful.

“It’s not offensive to me. It’s a term that goes back 100 to 200 years, that could be very much appropriate for those doing that kind of thing,” Shute said.

But Arthur Forrest said just hearing that word makes him wince.

“Lynching, to the black race, it’s a real harsh word.”

Jimmy Cashaw

Still, like Shute, many African Americans in Oliver’s district agreed that their representative knew exactly what he was doing when he used the word “lynch” in that context. Jimmy Cashaw, who owns Jimmy’s Barber Shop on Highway 182, said Oliver was telling one group of his constituents he’s looking out for them and another that their votes don’t matter.

“Any time you use a word like, ‘lynch’ or the N-word, there’s power in those words that touches everyone who sees them. How old is he? 50? C’mon now. He knew what he was saying. You don’t slip when it’s in your heart.”

Unwavering support

Of the half-dozen people who had previously voted for Oliver and spoke with Mississippi Today, all were white. And not one said Oliver’s comments had made them reconsider voting for him.

Bill Lee, who identified himself as a former commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said he didn’t identify with Oliver’s choice of words, but he hated to see the monuments removed, too.

“I agreed with a lot of what he said. But you have to understand Karl, it was hyperbolic on his part. … In the South, we feel strongly about our Confederate ancestry.”

Calls rise for resignation, punishment of Rep. Oliver

But for many African Americans in Oliver’s district, his comments last weekend only deepened a line in the sand they said they had been looking at their entire lives.

Liz Forrest

“I’m not really offended by it, honestly. It doesn’t really bother me. Just because he is letting people know that he is racist, and there are a lot of people out there that don’t let you know. It’s well-hidden,” said Liz Forrest, an upbeat 26-year-old who was helping a friend wash his car outside of Jimmy’s Barber Shop.

“(In the next election) I’d like to find someone better to keep the commotion down. It’s going to interfere with what we do. And it’s not going to change anything that actually needs changing,” she said.

Arthur Forrest, who is not a direct relative of Liz Forrest, said Oliver’s comments make it clear he doesn’t need the support of everyone in his district.

“When you think of someone as being a representative of the people, it’s the wrong thing to say,” Arthur Forrest said. “So who are you looking to represent? That’s the real question. It’s a black/white thing.”

But Forrest admits that he has felt this way about his representative for a long time, and Oliver’s comments last weekend were more a reminder than a revelation.

“(During his last campaign) did he come and speak to the blacks? For him, to come around and say ‘I’m going to represent you and I intend to do this and improve our town and bring in jobs,’ I never hear that,” Forrest said.

Jimmy, who lives in Winona, declined to give his last name.

However, for Jimmy, a middle-aged white man riding a Honda Goldwing motorcycle, preserving Confederate monuments is one of the big issues he wants to see addressed.

“I don’t think he said what he did for hate,” said Jimmy, who declined to give his last name. “He just wants to preserve what our ancestors fought for. The liberals want to take all that away from us.”

Not every white citizen feels this way. But when it comes to admitting this, for some, personal allegiances trump political ones.

As one 65-year-old Winona resident noted, he supports Oliver but not what he said. When asked to give his name, however, he stopped short.

“If you print my name or picture you’re going to destroy a life-long friendship,” he said.

Contributing: Kate Royals; R.L. Nave

  • Thile

    This was an excellent piece. The stark differences of opinions among Oliver’s citizens is quite telling–and doesn’t surprise me in the least.

    That line about advocating “conservative values” and keeping his district “business friendly” is a real hoot. Winona’s median income is $26,304 (a retail job paying $7.50-$9/hour most likely); District 46: $32,300 year, which is $7,000 below the state average. Looks like the only friendship here is Walmart and a few factories getting some tax breaks.

  • Nathan R. Shrader

    Thank you very much for this outstanding piece of journalism. I wish that news outlets had the resources to dedicate this sort of attention and detail to every legislative district in the country.

  • Jack Makokov

    Kathryn, Bill, and Jimmy are the type of folks who’d claim “they don’t see color” and “get along with everybody.”

  • Otis

    I’m very sure Mr. Oliver if well acquainted with the local CofCC chapter.

  • Charles Pearce

    Mississippi Today has made the same two points in all four Oliver stories — people are divided on this issue and a politician said something he should not have said — let’s move along, please.

  • Katherine Barich

    Oliver clearly shows why the rest of the world laughs at the Mississippi education system. He’s out of his league in the bigger world, and the censure from the rest of the world clearly shows it.

    The thing that really gets me is the so-called “apology” which says the only thing wrong with his point of view is the use of the word lynched. That implies “strung up” would have been a perfectly okay way to share his sentiments. He’s an anachronism, and this disgusting point of view is not long for the world as the rest of the world progresses away from it. After reading this article, it’s clear Winona is crumbling into the dustbin of history. Oliver is leading the march straight into the garbage. Who’d want to invest in this?

    A Mississippi native who doesn’t share that outdated point of view…

  • Johnny__Fever

    This quotes sums it all up: “He just wants to preserve what our ancestors fought for.
    Correct…and what was it your ancestors were fighting FOR? Slavery, the right to own another human and their children and beat them, kill them, or rape them. And Karl Oliver wants that memorialized and celebrated.
    Apparently thinking like that means you’re “a true Southern gentleman and a Christian” as the other lady said.
    Well, I don’t disagree with her there… it sure does…