Chants of “black lives matter” and “take it down” echo across the courthouse square.
Protesters wave signs and shout their disapproval of an anonymous Confederate soldier, immortalized in monument and towering over them.
This is not Birmingham or Mobile or some other urban center of Alabama with a core population of black residents. This is Florence, tucked away in the remote northwest corner of the state, with a population that is 75% white.
The protests from more populated Southern cities are filtering down to the hinterlands, with people in smaller and sometimes more conservative cities such as Florence, Gadsden, Anniston, Opelika, Jasper, Athens, Selma and Tuskegee showing their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Rather than tearing down monuments by force, however, people in these places are using peaceful protests, petitions and participation in government meetings to pressure local officials into acting.
The impetus for the protests is the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis. He is among a growing number of unarmed black men whose deaths at the hands of police have been captured on video and broadcast around the world.
“I think everyone was equally appalled by George Floyd’s death and the negligence of the police in that situation,” said Sarah Donley, assistant professor of sociology and social work at Jacksonville State University. “This injustice resonates with the majority of Americans, regardless of geographic location and racial or ethnic background.”
Donley pointed to the words of Desmund Tutu, an internationally known South African theologian and civil rights activist, who said people who remain neutral in matters of injustice have chosen the side of the oppressor.
The movement in Florence may be among the most organized of the protests in smaller cities across Alabama, and it appears to be getting results. Protesters go to the courthouse five evenings a week. A different local organization is in charge of each day’s protest.
People have been voicing their opposition to the monument in front of the Lauderdale County Courthouse in downtown Florence for about seven years, but Floyd’s death put the movement in “turbo mode,” according to Camille Bennett, founder and executive director of Project Say Something.
She said the name of the activist organization came about when local residents started addressing racial justice in the community.
“I remember talking to white community members,” she said, “and they were hearing all these racist things and they were seeing all these racist things from family and the workplace, or wherever, and my whole thing was like, ‘You didn’t say anything?’ We wanted everyone to address racial injustice. That’s how it got its name.”
On a recent night in Florence, about 75 people protested at the courthouse. About 90% of them were white. The group in this university town, home of the University of North Alabama — known for its connection to the Muscle Shoals music industry — included young adults, a few families and some senior citizens.
“White people are starting to become more aware that racial inequality in America is a reality and white people have a responsibility in this fight against racial injustice,” Donley said. “If you, as a white person, don’t acknowledge your own personal biases, do not call out racist behavior, or remain complacent when injustice happens, you are, ultimately, part of the problem.”
Violating State Law
Activists who want to take down Confederate monuments are dealing with local officials who are subject to the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act of 2017. The law requires local governments to obtain state permission before moving or renaming historically significant buildings or monuments that date back 40 years or more. Local entities that violate the law face a $25,000 fine.
In Birmingham, Mobile, Montgomery and Huntsville, officials chose to defy the law, take down Confederate monuments and pay the fines.
Most of the 60 Confederate monuments on public property in Alabama date back to the era immediately after Reconstruction, to the Jim Crow era of suppression against blacks, and the 1950s and ’60s segregationist period. Many of the monument dedication speeches included racist language.
When the Ladies Memorial Association dedicated the Florence monument in 1903, keynote speaker Dr. H.A. Moody voiced his distaste for a recent White House dinner at which President Theodore Roosevelt included Booker T. Washington, a prominent African American educator and author.
“When the highest representative of northern civilization invites the highest representative of Negro civilization to sit at his table as a social equal, he digs a gulf between us too wide and too deep for us to go to them, or for them to come to us,” Moody said.
Donley said the purpose of the monuments is pretty clear to anyone who reviews what was happening when the United Daughters of the Confederacy and other groups erected them.
“Ultimately, it was to honor the Confederate cause and soldiers with specific intentions of rewriting the narrative about the Civil War: That the Civil War was not about slavery, but instead about maintaining the ‘Southern way of life’ and ‘state’s rights,’” she said.
Bennett said she believes the state Legislature’s preservation act itself is racist.
These sentiments are resonating across Alabama and generating backlash from people who say the monuments are an important part of history that should stay intact.
Several white residents expressed those sentiments Monday night at a Lauderdale County Commission meeting, some arguing that the Civil War was more about state’s rights than slavery.
“A lot of people love this statue,” Clint Freeman told commissioners. “They lost family members.”
Freeman’s comment drew gasps from others at the meeting, including descendants of some of the 12.5 million Africans who were kidnapped and brought to the Americas between 1525 and 1866.
Cities Across Alabama
In Anniston, the City Council is discussing whether to relocate a monument on Quintard Avenue that honors Major John Pelham, a Confederate soldier born in Calhoun County.
“It’s certainly time that we discuss relocating this monument to Janney Furnace (historical site), just outside of Ohatchee,” Anniston Mayor Jack Draper said in a news report by ABC 33/40.
Anniston Star columnist Phillip Tutor urged the council to move the monument out of the city, which holds Calhoun County largest minority population, to a “suitable hideaway.”
“If anything,” he wrote, “scrubbing that monument from downtown Anniston will label the city as something better than it is today. As a city that listens, as a city that cares, as a city unafraid to act.”
In Gadsden, police recently detained two counter-protesters after a verbal confrontation with Black Lives Matter protesters over a Confederate monument.
Protesters marched through downtown and stopped at the Etowah County Detention Center, where inmates banged on windows and protesters yelled for deputies to kneel, according to alreporter.com.
The march went to City Hall and a nearby monument honoring Emma Sansom, who aided the Confederate Army.
Lia Autry, of Gadsden, told the news organization she attended the protest to oppose police brutality and injustice.
“Specifically for black people, who are wrongly targeted and killed over the color of their skin,” she said. “We’re here to support them and let them know we stand by them, and to let the police know that it’s not OK. It’s got to stop.”
Mary Kelley, chairwoman of the Etowah County Voters League, said the protest movement is bigger than those in the past and the protesters are more diverse, noting more whites than blacks seem to be participating.
In Opelika, more than 100 protesters marched recently at the courthouse square for Black Lives Matter, according to Opelika-Auburn News.
Local business owner Nigel Mongerie told the News he would not mind if the Robert E. Lee Camp 192 Daughters of the Confederacy took down its Confederate monument on South Eighth Street.
He said he believes most people are tired of police brutality and Confederate symbols, but people in power are keeping the status quo.
“Those are the ones you need to get through to and convince,” he said. Kate Craig told the News the recent protests in Opelika, Auburn and other cities showed her the need to re-evaluate how policing is conducted in the U.S.
Marchers in predominantly black Tuskegee moved around the town square on a recent night, calling for officials to remove Confederate monuments and symbols, according to WSFA-TV12.
“We want to see change, we want to see statues removed, we want to see the issues related to the health in our community addressed,” Tuskegee Mayor Tony Haygood told a reporter.
A monument owned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the town square was vandalized, and Macon County leaders are working together to remove it.
Former Mayor Johnny Ford said protesters want to see Confederate monuments removed along with the names of Ku Klux Klan members. He also is pushing to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Pettus was a lawyer, a U.S. senator, a Confederate veteran and a KKK leader.
The bridge that bears his name is a civil rights landmark for its place in history during a march that Martin Luther King Jr. led.
A petition is circulating to rename the bridge after U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was present and suffered a fractured skull when the Bloody Sunday clash occurred with state troopers in 1965.
In Athens, the Limestone County Commission is hearing from residents who either support keeping or removing a Confederate monument on the courthouse lawn.
Garth Lovvorn told the commission he would like to see minority groups develop an idea for a statue to add to the courthouse property to accompany the Confederate monument, according to the Athens News Courier.
Madeline Burkhardt said someone with ties to the KKK purchased the Confederate monument for the Athens location. She said she and others who want to remove the statue wish to preserve it in a more appropriate location.
In Albertville, the Sand Mountain Reporter received letters from people who want to move a Confederate monument from the Marshall County Courthouse. The monument is about 24 years old, so is not subject to the Alabama preservation act.
But County Commission Chairman James Hutcheson told the newspaper he doesn’t believe the monument should be moved.
“It’s part of Marshall County’s history,” he said. “I don’t believe you should try to destroy or rewrite history.”
Two groups in Jasper — one chanting “black lives matter” and another there to support keeping a Confederate monument — experienced several tense moments, according to the Daily Mountain Eagle. Several law enforcement officials kneeled to pay tribute to Floyd, and the protest ended peacefully.
Two petitions are circulating in Jasper, one to keep the monument and one to remove it.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated the statue in Jasper in 1908 to honor 1,900 soldiers from Walker County who fought for the South.
“Because of hundreds of years of oppression that Africa Americans have faced and in light of recent events with police brutality and racism in the United States, I feel that it is necessary to remove (the) Confederate monument from Town Square in Jasper,” one of the petitions states.
Getting Results in Florence
Years of persistent pressure appear to be paying off in Florence, where a plan is proceeding to move the courthouse statue to a portion of the city cemetery where Civil War soldiers are buried.
When the Project Say Something movement began seven years ago, the group suggested keeping the Confederate monument in place, but adding a companion statue of Dred and Harriet Scott to provide more historical context.
Dred Scott, who was enslaved by a hotel owner in Florence from 1820 to 1830, became the subject of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision. Dred and his wife Harriet sued for their freedom after they had been moved to the North. One law at the time stated anyone taken to a free territory automatically became free and could not be re-enslaved upon returning to a slave state.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1857, however, that all people of African descent, regardless of whether they were free or slave, were not U.S. citizens and so could not sue in federal court. The Scotts ultimately won their independence when the son of Dred Scott’s original owner in Florence bought their freedom.
But the Supreme Court decision had a national impact. Less than three years later, the nation was at war.
“The Dred Scott Decision outraged abolitionists, who saw the Supreme Court’s ruling as a way to stop debate about slavery in the territories,” according to history.com. “The divide between North and South over slavery grew and culminated in the secession of Southern states.”
When Bennett’s Project Say Something group offered to erect a Scott monument in Florence, they viewed it as a no-brainer for a Lauderdale County Commission caught between two sides of a modern civil war. The commission could keep the Confederate statue and the courthouse could gain a new memorial to a nationally known historical figure with local ties.
But Bennett said commissioners told her they had a verbal policy that prohibits the county from adding more monuments at the courthouse.
After Floyd’s death, Project Say Something changed its strategy to demanding that the commission remove the Confederate monument.
This time, some of the commissioners said they could not move the monument because it would violate the 2017 memorial preservation act.
During the debate, a private donor contacted Florence Mayor Steve Holt and offered to pay the $25,000 fine and the cost to relocate the statue.
On Monday night, Commission Chairman Danny Pettus announced, in effect, that the county government is punting the issue to City Hall. He said he had received a letter from the United Daughters of the Confederacy that stated the group gave the statue to the city of Florence in the early 1900s.
Holt said he is recommending that the City Council move the monument to Soldier’s Rest, an area of the cemetery where Civil War soldiers are buried. He said it could be on the council’s agenda in early July.
City Council President Dick Jordan told the TimesDaily he believes the council members support moving the monument, but they want permission from the County Commission to come onto county property. They also want the county to release the city from any liability, including from property damage.
Project Say Something leaders and protesters say they support moving the monument to the cemetery, even though it is a public space owned by the city government.
“Everything dead needs to be buried in the cemetery,” the Rev. Billy Ray Simpson told commissioners.