Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin has vowed to remove a controversial Confederate monument from Linn Park “as soon as possible.”
That decision, which results from violent protests that erupted in downtown Birmingham Sunday night, would violate state law and likely trigger a lawsuit from the State of Alabama. That’s a cost Woodfin said he is “willing to accept… because that is a lower cost than civil unrest in our city.”
The Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument has been in Linn Park since 1905, when the 52-foot-tall obelisk was donated to the city by the Pelham chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
On Sunday night, demonstratorsin Minneapolis began defacing the monument, chipping away at its base with shovels and unsuccessfully attempting to pull it down with a rope and a pickup truck. By end of the night, it had been covered in spray-painted slogans; its engraved quote from Jefferson Davis was painted over with a scrawled “Black Lives Matter.”
It wasn’t the first time that national racial tensions had drawn attention to the monument. In August 2017, then-Mayor William Bell ordered the statue to be covered by a black plywood barrier in response to violence that broke out at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Johnathan Austin, then the president of the City Council, argued that the city should remove the statue and “deal with the repercussions after the fact.” The statue, he said, “celebrate(s) racism, bigotry, hate and all those things that the South has been known for.”
Bell was reluctant to totally remove the statue, though, because of the state’s just-ratified Memorial Preservation Act, which requires cities to get permission from a state-appointed committee before moving, removing, altering or renaming “any architecturally significant building, memorial building, memorial street, or monument located on public property which has been in place for 40 or more years.”
“I’m not in the business of breaking the law that I swore to uphold, but I am in the business of challenging that law,” Bell told Austin.
But Bell’s plywood compromise was rejected by the state. Woodfin, his successor, inherited the subsequent lawsuit, in which the state claimed that the freestanding wooden coverings “alter(ed) and otherwise disturb(ed)” the statue.
While a Jefferson County judge initially sided with the city andthe Alabama Memorial Preservation Act unconstitutional, the Alabama Supreme Court that ruling in November 2019. Cities don’t have the constitutional right to free expression, the ruling declares — only individuals have that right.
The court fined Birmingham $25,000 for covering the statue. The state had requested damages of $25,000 per day — an amount that would have totaled $20.85 million.
“This ruling appears to be less about the rule of law and more about politics,” Rick Journey, Woodfin’s communications director, said then. “We are carefully reviewing the opinion to determine our next step, but clearly the citizens of Birmingham should have the final decision about what happens with monuments on Birmingham city grounds.”
During Sunday night’s demonstrations, Woodfin addressed protestors through a bullhorn, urging them not to damage the statue and promising to remove it “Tuesday by noon.”
“I have a course of action I think you’ll appreciate,” he said. “Allow me to finish the job for you.”
Local comedian Jermaine “FunnyMaine” Johnson, who had led the calls to topple the statue, took the bullhorn after negotiating quietly with Woodfin and County Commissioner Sheila Tyson.
“The city is in a situation legally where they can’t sit by and let us just do this, even though some of the city (council) members want that bitch to come down.” Johnson agreed to give Woodfin time to remove the monument legally, “but if that … ain’t down by Tuesday morning, I will see y’all here at 12 o’clock noon Tuesday.”
Tyson, standing nearby, nodded in approval. “Tear that bitch down!” she shouted.
On Monday morning, though, Woodfin’s course of action remained vague.
“We need to make sure whatever decision we make that there is no damage done to (the monument),” he said. “Even if some damage has been caused by those who unlawfully did the damage, we want to bring in someone that can show us how to remove without doing any damage to it, to see if it can be salvaged, to see if the Daughters of the Confederacy want it, to see if we can move it to our museum or anywhere (that is) a safe place to be.”
Representatives of United Daughters of the Confederacy did not immediately respond to a request for comment; their Richmond, Virginia, headquarters had been set on fire Sunday morning.
Whatever the statue’s final destination, Woodfin said the risk it poses is too great to allow it to remain where it is.
“What took place in that park put many of our residents and peaceful protestors in physical danger,” he said. “In addition to that, it could potentially put our officers in danger… In order to prevent more civil unrest in this city, I think it is very imperative that we remove this statue that is in Linn Park. That has a cost to it. I understand the Attorney General’s office can bring a civil suit against the city… I am willing to accept that, because that is a lower cost than civil unrest in our city.”
In a statement Monday, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said his office would respond if the statue left Linn Park. “Should the City of Birmingham proceed with the removal of the monument in question, based upon multiple conversations I have had today, city leaders understand I will perform the duties assigned to me by the Act to pursue a new civil complaint against the City,” he said.
Though a bill has been proposed in the Alabama Senate that would increase penalties for AMPA violations from a one-time fine of $25,000 to $10,000 a day, it remains stuck in committee. For now, though, the cost of removing the statue from Linn Park remains relatively low.
“(AMPA) provides a singular avenue for enforcement — the filing of a civil complaint in pursuit of a fine, which the Alabama Supreme Court has determined to be a one-time assessment of $25,000,” Marshall wrote. “The act authorizes no additional relief.”