Confederate monument is gone, but white supremacy still reigns in Alabama
This is an opinion column.
Gradually, the Confederate monument at Linn Park in Birmingham got shorter.
On Monday evening, the contractors removed the obelisk from its pedestal, one segment at a time. With cranes, they loaded the three conical sandstone blocks onto a flatbed truck before it headed in the dark to an undisclosed location. Where he went, city officials said, will be under wraps for now.
On Tuesday evening, these entrepreneurs returned to remove the plinth. For more than a century, at the intersection of 20th Street and Park Place, those gray stones have borne the brunt of this lost cause lie.
Wednesday morning, where there had been a monument, there was instead a dirty square on the sidewalk, littered with rubble and cordoned off with metal barriers and duct tape.
But not everything that was there is gone.
I’m not talking about the pile of broken stones or the protester’s graffiti nearby, but rather what has kept this monument there until this week – what lies below.
And the lies below.
With everything going on in our country, the removal of the monument will be a footnote. If and when it gets mentioned in the national news, they will say it’s gone because the protesters demanded it.
What might be missing is why he was always there in the first place.
The city of Birmingham, over 70 percent black, didn’t want the thing there. In 2017, City Council members pushed Birmingham Mayor William Bell to demolish the thing. The Charlottesville riots had only recently ended, and the mayor’s office appeared to fear that a hasty demolition would invite this kind of unrest in Birmingham. Bell had built a plywood wall around the obelisk until the spirits cooled and there could be a plan to deal with it in the least provocative way.
But the Alabama legislature had other ideas.
Earlier that year, State Senator Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, sponsored the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act. In the legislature, Allen has had a record of provocative legislation. He has advocated for gun rights in almost all public spaces, including campuses, and he has previously proposed banning books with gay authors and characters from libraries. When asked if the books should be burned, he replied to a reporter that no, they should be buried in a hole.
Many of Allen’s sponsored bills aren’t going anywhere, but this time his proposal was passed – passed by an all-white Republican majority over objections from mostly black Democratic lawmakers.
Governor Kay Ivey enacted this bill and, when she campaigned for re-election in 2018, she bragged about it in her first TV spot. It was his flagship achievement. In the ad, she lambasted Washington, political correctness and special interests.
“When special interests wanted to demolish our monuments, I said no and signed a law to protect them,” Ivey said.
But it was a lie. It was not Washington’s vested interests that the law sought to thwart. They were blacks in Birmingham, and the ad even featured the Birmingham monument, unless anyone was confused by Ivey’s obfuscation.
When Bell built the plywood screen around the obelisk, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall quickly sued the city for violating the new law. This legal battle lasted two years and brought together two administrations at Birmingham Town Hall. Under new mayor Randall Woodfin, the city has not tempered its remarks while fighting the law in court.
“During this litigation, the law initially presented as a (supposedly) neutral ban in the interests of historic preservation, radically transformed into the unwavering approval of the State of Alabama of a a position that offers more protection to the ideals expressed by Confederate loyalists in 1905 than the state is prepared to afford for the ideals of the citizens and municipalities of Alabama that exist and operate today, ”said lawyers for the city in their documents.
“The Attorney General’s argument is a blatant proclamation of the state’s intention to exercise control over any opposition to the prominent display of relics that honor Alabama’s open conflict as an enemy of the states United of America, and mourning the “lost cause” of Confederation to function as a separate and independent nation that promotes the slavery of African Americans.
City and state fought all the way to the Alabama Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled Birmingham was breaking the law.
But the bill had a weakness.
While Marshall had argued that the city could face fines of $ 25,000 a day until the monument is returned to its former state, the court said that was wrong. The maximum the state could impose on Birmingham was a one-time fine of $ 25,000.
The city has an operating budget of over $ 400 million. Paying a fine like that would be easy.
State Supreme Court Justice Mike Bolin said in a concurring opinion that the legislature should strengthen the law to make it a deterrent, and earlier this year Allen introduced a bill that would what happened this week in Linn Park a civil offense that would bankrupt the city. These bills went to a Senate committee, but the coronavirus pandemic interrupted the session and prevented the bill from coming into force this year.
When you see a group of white officials in Montgomery coercing a predominantly black town, against its will, to honor those who enslaved, tortured, and murdered their ancestors, you might wonder – aside from the Monuments Bill. – how such a thing could be constitutional. But you have to remember that Alabama has its own constitution. The unwavering resistance to the U.S. Constitution and centralized white control is exactly how the 1901 Alabama Constitution was designed to work.
Written after the end of Reconstruction, Alabama’s founding document takes power away from local governments and gives it to Montgomery, and then the men who wrote this document made no secret of why they did it. It was, to use their words, for white supremacy.
“And what do we want to do? Why is it within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this state, ”said Anniston lawyer John B. Knox after being elected to chair the 1901 convention.
In that speech, Knox told his colleagues that blacks are not capable of governing and that the purpose of this new document will be control of whites. The minutes of that convention actually have a caption that reads: “White supremacy by law.”
“But if we were to have white supremacy, we have to establish it by law – not by force or fraud,” Knox said.
This miserable state constitution has been amended over 900 times and is now the longest founding document in the world. But even though the racist language has been removed from it, even though the federal courts have overturned its more direct racist mandates, it still functions as it was designed, just a few years before this monument was erected in Birmingham’s Linn Park.
The monument is gone now, and I will miss it. Not for any aesthetic affection or misplaced nostalgia, but because it connected all the dots perfectly and made visible something horribly wrong in this state. It misrepresented the story, but it made the forces at play in our present clear for all to see. It showed that a white power structure still exists, that our legislature still makes unjust laws, our governor still signs them, and our attorney general and courts still enforce them.
If she wanted, Governor Ivey could call the Legislative Assembly in special session tomorrow to repeal the Monuments Act. While there, lawmakers could rewrite Alabama’s calendar so that it no longer honors Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Confederate veterans with holidays.
They could and they should, but none of this will happen because it would be political suicide. When we dig, layer by layer, what held up that monument over there in Linn Park, somewhere between the sidewalk and the molten mantle of the Earth, is us.
It was not a memorial to the forgotten dead, but a display of living racism.
The Birmingham monument and others like it around the state could disappear amid a wave of protests, late-night contractors and $ 25,000 checks to the state of Alabama.
But whatever held these statues together for so long – all the lies underneath – will still be there.
Kyle Whitmire is the state political columnist for the Alabama Media Group.