“Those of us who oppose the veneration of white supremacist propaganda as history can still take some concrete steps.” –John McKerley
On Wednesday, May 24, a spokeswoman for Governor Kay Ivey confirmed that the governor had signed the so-called Memorial Preservation Act. In accordance with the act, the state prohibits “the relocation, removal, alteration, renaming, or other disturbance of any architecturally significant building, memorial building, memorial street, or monument located on public property which has been in place for 40 or more years.”
The act also creates a Committee on Alabama Monument Protection, to consider petitions for waivers regarding such memorials and monuments less than 40 years old. In the event that “an entity exercising control of public property” fails to comply with the act or the committee’s decisions, the act directs the Alabama attorney general to fine such entity $25,000 for each violation. (Editor’s note: The Tennessee Valley Progressive Alliance is seeking to raise the fine for Madison County here. )
Although much remains to be determined in how the courts interpret the meaning of “alteration” and “disturbance,” those of us concerned about the role of such monuments in Alabama’s present and future face hard decisions about how to proceed.
If nothing else, one thing should be clear: The vast majority of these monuments—those erected between roughly 1890 and 1930—were intended as the cultural side of the political revolution of white supremacy that swept Alabama and much of the rest of the South during those years.
Immediately after the Civil War (1861-1865), black and some white southerners united within the Republican Party to build biracial democracy in the aftermath of slavery. They had some notable successes, including establishing some of the South’s first public school systems. But they collapsed for internal and external reasons.
Like parties today, they had their share of infighting that created splits between party members. Far more damaging, however, were attacks from outside. In this case, these attacks came from whites who had reorganized the Democratic Party with its affiliated terrorist organizations, the most famous of which was the Ku Klux Klan.
Although these Democrats succeeded in toppling postwar Republican governments, they didn’t succeed in completely driving black people from politics. Despite widespread violence, fraud, and intimidation, black men continued to vote in states like Alabama until well into the 1880s.
By then, however, black people again presented a serious political threat through remnants of the Republican Party, working-class focused factions within the Democrats, and a new group, the Populists, who emphasized the interests of small white and black farmers and urban workers.
To stop this new threat, as well as the problem of whites cheating other whites by open fraud, Democrats changed state laws to remove black men and many poor whites from the voting rolls. This process took different forms in different states. In Alabama, it was accomplished through the 1901 constitution.
The new constitution made voting very difficult for poor and black men. Only a few years after the constitution was ratified, black registration had fallen below 3,000 in the entire state, and as many as 50,000 white men were disfranchised for failure to pay a poll tax.
Statues and other monuments to Confederate veterans, like those erected in Huntsville in 1905, were the cultural side of this political revolution. Many white Alabamians had learned to distrust the men who had come to power since the war. These men had used fraud and violence—and sometimes even limited political concessions to black people—in the name of their own political power. By contrast, many younger white Alabamians revered the aging Confederate veterans as defenders of an old order to which they hoped to return.
One example of this reverence was the proposal to include an exemption for veterans and their descendants in the constitution’s voting restrictions. Such an exemption not only placed veterans on a metaphorical pedestal (in anticipation of the stone ones), but it also allowed for large numbers of white men to evade tax payment and literacy requirements meant first and foremost to disfranchise black men.
The statues reflected the hope that black disfranchisement and segregation would secure the old cause of white supremacy at the dawn of a new century. The statues and other monuments would stand guard, like burning crosses of stone, keeping safe the public square for white people for all time.
As it turns out, this “New” South (a term developed by people at the time to distinguish their period from the “Old” South of slave agriculture) would last until only the 1960s, when a new generation of black and white southerners came together to tear it down. But, even as the political side of the New South collapsed, creating an even “newer” South, the cultural side remained.
The statues and monuments were left over political propaganda from the early 1900s. But, to those of us who grew up in the South since that time, they looked and felt like they had been there forever. For many whites, they became neutral symbols of “heritage.” For black people, however, who remembered their true history, they were symbols of a long record of hate.
But where does this leave us? As we know, in the wake of Jim Crow’s collapse, white supremacists fled the Democrats for the Republicans, and, over time, Alabama and other Southern states returned to de facto one party rule, even in the absence of poll taxes and literacy tests. One can only hope that the Memorial Preservation Act would be overturned in the event that progressive organizing shifts the tectonic plates of Alabama politics at some point in the future. In the short term, however, those of us who oppose the veneration of white supremacist propaganda as history can still take some concrete steps.
First, we should work through our historical organizations and the Democratic Party to make sure that progressives have as much influence as possible on the Committee on Alabama Monument Protection. As long as Republicans dominate state government, they and their allies are likely to dominate the committee as well. But the act’s authors did reserve some seats for members of the minority party in the legislature and provided for important historical and cultural organizations to submit lists of names to the legislature and governor. We should take advantage of those opportunities to force Republicans to at least balance the committee’s membership or publically defend their choices.
Next, we should make common cause with those people who opposed monument removal but favored adding signs and other additional information placing the monuments in question into context. Even if the courts narrowly interpret “alteration” and “disturbance” to restrict adding such signs, organizing around the issue can help bridge gaps over the issue that might allow for building larger political coalitions in the future.
Finally, where appropriate, we should file waivers with the committee to further test the limits of the act.
By using the act as an organizing opportunity, we can do much like what the Alabamians of one hundred years ago did in the face of the white supremacist revolution that created the 1901 constitution and erected monuments to reshape Alabamians’ understanding of the past—we can resist and continue the long, long struggle to make Alabama, a place we love, into a land of justice and fairness for all its people.
About the Author: John McKerley is a native Huntsvillian with Alabama roots stretching back to the 1830s. His publications include Foot Soldiers for Democracy: The Men, Women, and Children of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. He is currently a historian at the University of Iowa, but he keeps involved in Alabama history and politics through the Huntsville African American History Project (HAAHP), an oral history project focused on collecting stories of race and resistance from the city’s recent past.