When Birmingham’s mayor decided to remove a visible symbol of the Confederacy from a park in a state packed with monuments, memorials, plaques and place names honoring the lost cause, it made huge news and sparked a number of reactions.
“It was absolutely appropriate,” said retired Auburn University professor Wayne Flynt. Besides being a recognized authority in Southern history, Flynt counts among his ancestors members of the Confederate military.
His view: it was time for the monument to go. “I applaud the mayor for doing it. I applaud the City Council for supporting it,” Flynt said.
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin defied state law June 1 when he had the controversial 1905 Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument removed from the city’s Linn Park. He promised demonstrators he would have the memorial removed to quell violence after a protest over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police turned toward destruction of statuary and downtown storefronts.
Reaction has been swift and ongoing:
- Woodfin was praised by supporters but also received death threats, including from a Warrior man who has been charged with making terroristic threats against the mayor and others over the decision.
- The Alabama attorney general filed suit against the city for violating the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, and the city will face a one-time fine of $25,000. The White Clergy for Black Lives Matter group organized a crowdsourcing effort that raised more than $60,000 in 23 hours in support of taking down the monument, and a fund set up by comedian Jermaine “FunnyMaine” Johnson raised $31,000.
- And Mobile removed the statue of Confederate Adm. Raphael Semmes from its pedestal downtown. The statue was vandalized early Tuesday and was the subject of threats in 2017.
There’s been lot of emotion expressed and a lot of upheaval over removing the Birmingham monument. It also was targeted in 2017 by protestors who wanted it removed after the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, at a white supremacist rally where a young counter protester was killed. A white supremacist was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Flynt said that since the Charlottesville incident, he has seen symbols of the Confederacy — including Birmingham’s now-removed monument — as more than simple historical artifacts.
“When I was at Samford and used to take my kids to the park downtown and go to the library and so forth, and the old (civic center) coliseum, I saw the monument over and over … and it didn’t offend me at all. But it offends me now. And it hurts my friends who are African American in Birmingham,” Flynt said.
“Those of us who’ve had power and influence need to say, ‘I’m not going to use my power and influence to maintain something that hurts my brother, that hurts my sister. It doesn’t hurt me to take it down. But it hurts them to keep it up. So take it down.”
Having taken the monument down, Birmingham is now heading for another legal clash with the state. Presumably, Mobile is, too. But there are still a lot of Confederate memorials of various sorts standing around the state of Alabama. More than 40 of the state’s 67 counties have at least one, and some counties have more.
For instance, there has been a statue of Robert E. Lee outside a Montgomery high school named after him — which now has mostly black students. On June 1, the birthday of Confederal Gen. and President Jefferson Davis, the same day Birmingham’s obelisk started to come down, someone knocked over the Lee statue. Four people were charged with criminal mischief — although those charges were dropped June 5, at least for now. The statue is in storage.
Also consider the bust of Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, which was installed in Selma as recently as 20 years ago at the Vaughan-Smitherman Museum. The bust, partly financed by the city, later had trash dumped on it and was damaged when someone tried to remove it from its foundation. It went to a local Confederate spot in a cemetery, where it was stolen in 2012 and never recovered. It has since been replaced.
There also is one in Tuskegee. The Tuskegee Confederate Monument, which was erected the year after Birmingham’s obelisk by a Macon County chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy — the organization behind the installation of tributes to the confederacy all over the South. The UDC owns the monument and the park where it is located. The statue has weathered several attempts to tear it down or have it legally removed. And it is regularly a target of vandals who have spray painted it.
There is a memorial in Demopolis that has had its own share of damage but for different reasons, as noted in an article in The Week:
“About 3:30 a.m. on a Saturday in July 2016, an on-duty patrol car with the Demopolis, Alabama, police department proceeded along North Main Avenue toward West Capitol Street. It was a clear night, and nothing much was going on. … Up ahead, in the center of the intersection, loomed a monument: a marble statue of a soldier, not quite life-size, elevated about a dozen feet on a granite pedestal. Negotiating the intersection required a slight swerve around the monument — but the police officer crashed straight into it. The impact of the Dodge Charger broke off the soldier at the shins and put him on his back amid the shrubs and flowers. Undamaged was the inscription on the base: ‘Our Confederate Dead.’ …
“Until that Saturday morning a year ago, the soldier had stood guard almost entirely without controversy. Nobody protested him, nobody celebrated him. It was only after he was gone that he mattered,” The Week reported.
“The one in Demopolis has been the scene of limited protests … but it hasn’t spread,” Flynt said. “But the mayor of Demopolis and the city leaders of Demopolis have worked with that group and to some degree they worked out a compromise,” he said.
The statue was on its way to the Marengo County History and Archives Museum after that vote in late April 2017. In May 2017, the state Legislature passed the monuments bill forbidding the altering of any monument more than 39 years old — the same law Birmingham defied when it removed the monument from Linn Park. In December of that year, the Attorney General’s Office gave an opinion that the city was free to move ahead with its plans. The Confederate statue was replaced by a monument to the dead from all wars.
It’s not hard to find remnants of the Confederacy in Alabama. Many memorials serve as historical sites, such as the Confederate Memorial Park, established in 1964 in Chilton County. It sits on what was the state’s only care facility for Confederate veterans, their wives and widows from 1902 to 1939. Brierfield Ironworks Historical State Park in Bibb County, between Centreville and Montevallo became the only ironworks owned by the Confederacy when the rebel government bought it, along with nine slaves, in 1963. The first White House of the Confederacy, where Jefferson Davis lived for about 3 months, still stands in Montgomery.
But most of Alabama’s Confederate historical sites, like the one in Demopolis, are rarely the sites of protest and, until now, even most of the memorials are seldom under active attack physically or from efforts to remove them.
“Memory, as we know, is a strange creature,” Flynt said. “Memory is partly dependent upon context — what’s it’s like for you in the context of the memories you have. And the pattern of American history is that when we’re focused on world events or when we’re focused on recessions where people are struggling just to get by, … you can have all sorts of monuments and things like that that people just don’t think about.”
But then something happens — something like George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, “and all of a sudden, everything refocuses on a different part of historical memory,” he said.
Before Charlottesville, Flynt said he didn’t think of the Confederacy in quite the same way.
“I can remember putting a little tiny Confederate flag on (the grave of) one of my wife’s relatives who was killed in Charleston, South Carolina, during the siege,” Flynt said. “And I didn’t think anything about putting a little tiny Confederate flag on his grave where there were so many other little Confederate flags, and it didn’t have anything to do with celebrating apartheid or racism or anything else. It was just sort of a way of remembering a relative who had died.
“I wouldn’t do that now, because after Charlottesville, you’ve seen Neo-Nazis shouting ‘Sieg Heil,’ and Nazi salutes and carrying Confederate flags. And so now historical memory is not 1865, or 1870 or 1880 and the Klan. Instead, historical memory for me is Charlottesville.
“And also, as a Christian, my concern is not necessarily always acting on what I think is right but acting in a way that people I love and care about, including African American members of my Sunday School class, respect my values,” Flynt said. “If I were into Confederate monuments right now, there are an awful lot of African Americans in my Sunday School class and good friends who are African Americans and my three goddaughters who are African Americans who would say, ‘What are you thinking? That is a symbol of what happened in Minneapolis.’”
Flynt said that, taken as strictly historical artifacts, he doesn’t object to monuments like the memorial to Robert E. Lee in Richmond that the state’s governor has now vowed to remove.
“I don’t have a problem with Robert E. Lee’s monument in Richmond, Virginia. But I fully understand why the governor wants to take that down. And if I were voting on it, I would vote to take it down — not because it offends me, but because it offends my brothers and sisters,” he said.
Predictably, removing the monument in Birmingham has met with approval in many quarters, but not all.
“On the same day Alabama observed a state holiday honoring Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin followed through on the city’s long overdue wish to remove a Confederate monument from a public park,” the Southern Poverty Law Center said on the nonprofit’s website. “Monuments to the Confederacy glorify those who fought to keep Black people in chains. These symbols are a constant reminder of our country’s ongoing dehumanization of Black people and systemic anti-Black racism – the results of which are playing out through protests across the U.S.
“Sadly, the state of Alabama, which passed a law preventing the removal of such monuments, refused to recognize what Birmingham has long understood: the racist symbol in Linn Park no longer represented the city’s values, morals and character and should be removed.”
The SPLC, according to a statement on the same page, “does not support erasing history, nor the defacing and/or destruction of any historic artifact.”
The same seems to be true for the group that erected many of the confederate monuments around the country, the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The UDC, rallying to the defense of the monuments, says on its website that the group “does not associate with or include in its official UDC functions and events, any individual, group or organization known as unpatriotic, militant, racist or subversive to the United States of America and its Flag.”
In 2018, the UDC made a statement condemning racism while urging people to leave the monuments to stand as historic artifacts.
“The United Daughters of the Confederacy totally denounces any individual or group that promotes racial divisiveness or white supremacy,” said the 2018 statement by UDC President Nelma Crutchers. “And we call on these people to cease using Confederate symbols for their abhorrent and reprehensible purposes… . Join us in denouncing hate groups and affirming that Confederate memorial statues and monuments are part of our shared American history and should remain in place.”
SPLC’s “Whose Heritage” report sees the history but makes a different recommendation. “Our public entities should no longer play a role in distorting history by honoring a secessionist government that waged war against the United States to preserve white supremacy and the enslavement of millions of people,” the report states.
Making decisions about whether Confederate statues remain works best on a local level, Flynt said. “This is really a classic example of the genius of American localism. If it’s not an issue that divides a community, leave it up. And if it is an issue of community division, put it down,” Flynt said.
“And the reason for that is, an awful lot of those monuments are in dying counties and dying towns. And if you just want to finish off a little town in the Black Belt, just get in a battle over that. And all of a sudden, they’re outraged, not over whether you have decent schools, which is really the key to the future, but they’re outraged over a stupid piece of marble. I’m not going to divide a town over a piece of marble or over a historical memory.”
Memorials to the Confederacy are hardly isolated to the South. In fact, they are strung from Maine to Washington state.