As calls to remove Confederate monuments grew louder, states passed new laws to protect them
Brian Lyman and Natalie Allison, USA TODAY Network
Robert Harris’ parents were sharecroppers who attended civil rights meetings and registered to vote. For that, their landlord plowed up their yard.
“They wasn’t told they had to leave,” Harris said. “The land they were raised on, they would just drive the tractors up by the house, as in the yard space. That was letting them know they had to go.”
It was one in a long chain of incidents of racial oppression in Lowndes County, 25 miles west of Montgomery, Alabama. More than two-thirds of Lowndes' population lived in slavery in 1860. Whites lynched at least 16 people there between 1877 and 1950.
A column dedicated to Confederate veterans outside the Lowndes County Courthouse in Hayneville, Alabama – where Harris has served on the county commission for 22 years – was a reminder of that oppression.
It served as a reminder of “how we were treated,” Harris said.
There had been talk in the past about removing the monument.
But the killing of George Floyd – and the national discussions of systemic racism that it sparked – “switched on a light bulb,” Harris said of Lowndes County, which is 72% black.
Like Lowndes, as the desire for Confederate monument removal continues to gain traction, cities and counties across the region face a problem: whether the state government will punish them over the removal.
Seven former Confederate states have passed laws limiting or preventing local governments from removing monuments – all within the past 20 years.
In 2017, the Alabama Legislature, whose membership is 76% white, approved a law known as the Memorial Preservation Act. The law makes it legally impossible to remove monuments 40 years old or older. A government that does so faces a one-time fine of $25,000.
A bill that would have increased the penalty to $10,000 for every day of violation did not advance in the regular session of the Legislature this spring.
A message seeking comment from the Alabama attorney general's office about the Lowndes County Commission's decision was not returned. Harris said commissioners had some conversations about fundraising if the state tries to punish the county over the removal.
"There haven’t been any in-depth discussions about that," he said. "But I know there may be a possibility that the fine will be raised by outside sources."
In Tennessee, the General Assembly in 2013 passed the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, amending it in 2016 and 2018 – in the midst of Memphis’ fight to remove multiple Confederate statues in city parks – to make it even more difficult for local entities to take down monuments.
After years of attempting to go through Tennessee’s system for removal and repeatedly being blocked, the city of Memphis turned to a creative solution: selling the parks to a nonprofit that would not be subject to the state law governing public monuments. Statues of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and Confederate President Jefferson Davis came down hours after the sale in December 2017.
“The whole momentum of the country now is to not honor Confederate soldiers, and these laws really stand in the way of local people making decisions about local parks and statues,” said Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, who worked for months with a small group of city officials and attorneys to quietly orchestrate the removal before the state or private groups could block their new plan.
As a result, the Legislature once again tightened its monument protection law to prevent another city from transferring statue ownership. It also withheld $250,000 that had initially been budgeted for Memphis’ bicentennial celebration.
All of the obstacles were worth it, Strickland said, to remove monuments that were not reflective of Memphis, a city that is roughly 65% black.
“I think in the end, most all of these will come down,” Strickland said of similar statues across the South. “It’s the right thing to do, and I think it’s inevitable.”
The pressure to pull down the monuments is growing. The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Alabama, said in a report in July that governments removed or relocated 29 Confederate monuments between Floyd’s death on May 25 and July 7. More than 730 Confederate monuments remain, according to the organization’s count.
Birmingham, which did not exist during the Civil War, agreed to pay the state of Alabama $25,000 in June to allow the removal of a monument to Confederate soldiers and sailors in a city park.
“Most have not been toppled down by protesters,” said Hillary Green, a professor at the University of Alabama who studies the Civil War, Reconstruction and 19th-century history. “The majority that are coming down are the ones in front of courthouses.”
Confederate monuments have a racist legacy
Most Confederate monuments erected before 1890 tended to be memorials to dead soldiers, erected in cemeteries. But as the Jim Crow South emerged and white Southerners stripped Black citizens of the right to vote, the memorials began moving into public spaces. White women’s organizations, particularly the United Daughters of the Confederacy, spearheaded the construction and creation of the monuments.
“The UDC might have fundraised to design and purchase and then put in place the monuments, but it’s subsequent governments who continued to uphold and maintain them,” Green said. “While they look like a private organization, they’re going hand in hand with the emergence of a white supremacist racial government structure.”
The Black press and African American groups fought the rise of the monuments, though there weren’t the mass protests in the streets seen as part of today’s opposition to Confederate monuments.
Kevin Levin, a historian and author of multiple books on the Civil War and the legacy of the Confederacy, said the monuments were “about solidifying white rule,” and noted that due to disenfranchisement, Black citizens wielded little power to take part in discussions about what should be placed in a public square.
“These monuments were about making sure the younger generation that didn’t experience the war, didn’t experience Reconstruction in the 1870s, that they never forget what their parents and grandparents fought for,” Levin said. “That the cause of white supremacy was their cause moving forward into the 20th century.”
Learotha Williams, a historian in Nashville and professor at Tennessee State University, has traveled the state studying historic markers.
“When it comes to public memory, I’m sure that around the time when these statues went up, there were people walking around who remembered the buying and selling of human beings in that space,” Williams said.
He noted a nameless Confederate soldier monument erected in 1899 in Franklin, Tennessee, just south of Nashville.