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.
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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.
“The thought has always been there,” he said. “The light just got brighter on it, so to speak.”
On June 29, the five-member county commission unanimously voted to remove the monument, erected sometime before 1940. Dickson Farrior, a commissioner who is white, put the motion forward.
The monument was removed July 1.
It’s a decision local governments throughout the South are increasingly trying to make even as state legislatures have simultaneously worked to forbid them from doing so.
State laws prove a hurdle for monument removal
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.
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“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.
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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.
“He stands in the same square where they had lynched a man a few years before they put it up,” Williams said.
Monument erection slowed down after the 1920s, due in part to saturation, but rose again during the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
Efforts to remove symbols of the Confederacy go back decades. Black legislators in Alabama fought for years to remove the Confederate flag from the state Capitol, placed there in 1961, before finally succeeding in 1993. The efforts accelerated after a white supremacist killed nine Black worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, and after a white supremacist killed a protester and wounded 28 others in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
All the state laws protecting Confederate monuments in the former Confederacy are 20 years old or younger. Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee have either enacted or strengthened their preservation laws in the past five years.
Paul Gramling Jr., commander in chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the monuments for him “represent those men who never came home” and he defended existing restrictions on removal.
“I discount anything when they say they want to put it in a museum or a cemetery,” he said. “I discount that. If you compromise and do that, they’re going to be coming at you later to move it from that spot.”
Lecia Brooks, chief of staff for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the organization opposes public celebrations of the Confederacy, not cemetery monuments. The laws protecting public Confederate monuments, she said, reflect state governments imposing their will on smaller communities, many with predominantly Black populations.
“Birmingham is a perfect example,” she said. “You have a majority African American population, an African American mayor, they all agree they want it gone. And the state would prevent them from doing that.”
Removing monuments won't fix deeper issues
While a yearslong vocal fight in Memphis preceded the removal of the city’s statues, an hour to the east in Bolivar sits one of the first Confederate monuments erected in the South.
A monument to fallen Confederate soldiers, the obelisk installed in the late 1860s and dedicated in 1873 sits on the south lawn of the Hardeman County Courthouse and has largely gone unnoticed.
There have been no Black Lives Matter protests in Bolivar, no large public cries in recent years for the monument to come down. But as a movement to confront symbols of racism sweeps the nation, efforts to remove the obelisk are starting.
“If the idea of this had not come up as a nationwide issue, probably most people would have been like me, just never paid it any attention,” said Tennessee state Rep. Johnny Shaw, 78, a Democrat from Bolivar.
Similarly to Harris in Lowndes County, Alabama, Shaw has lived in Hardeman County since his family was forced off the land they sharecropped elsewhere in west Tennessee in the late 1950s after his father registered to vote.
Shaw hopes he can help facilitate the county monument’s removal, but he knows it will face resistance. He said he’ll work to see that happen but is not willing to see rioting or vandalism occur in the process. And more importantly, Shaw said, he knows removal of a monument won’t eliminate racism.
“I think at the end of the day, the people who know right and wrong are going to have to understand there are some things we’re just going to have to live with until God transitions us out of this world,” said Shaw, who in 2000 became the first Black lawmaker to represent his district since Reconstruction.
Bolivar Mayor Julian McTizic, who in 2017 became the city’s youngest mayor at age 30 and the first African American to hold the office, does not have a fire under his feet to call for removal. Since he took office amid a national debate on monuments, he has not had a resident approach him about the monument, McTizic said.
“Nobody wants a race war to start out in their town,” he said. “No one knows how to deal with all of it.”
Like Shaw, Alabama House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, also said that while he wanted the monuments to come down, they’re primarily a “cosmetic issue.” In addition to removal, there must be conversations about systemic racism in education funding, health care, poverty and many other areas.
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“I think we’ve got to dig deep in those things,” he said. “This pandemic has exposed our lack of health care infrastructure. … We’ve got to look at obvious disparities in poor communities and especially communities of color in general.”
Lowndes County bears witness to those issues.
More than 25% of the county population lives in poverty, and poor sewage and water infrastructure has led to a rise in tropical diseases there in recent years. The COVID-19 outbreak and economic fallout have hit the county hard: The unemployment rate hit a Great Depression-like 26% in April before falling back to a still-catastrophically high 16.9% in June, compared with 5.7% a year before.
The county struggles to attract industry, Harris said, and has a small tax base that makes investments in economic development difficult. The commissioner accuses the Legislature of “setting up winners and losers” that contribute to Lowndes County’s struggles.
There are other reminders of the county's past on the lawn outside the courthouse. A monument to fallen law enforcement officers sits on one end. On another is a brick column dedicated to Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a white seminarian and civil rights activist killed shortly after his release from jail in 1965.
Taking down the Confederate monument, Harris said, was “a step in the right direction,” if only for taking down a reminder of the roots of the troubles that Lowndes still grapples with.
But the troubles are still there.
“The equality that we’ve worked so hard to have has not yet come to pass,” Harris said. “We’re still behind on everything, and we have to work twice as hard as others in order to get where we need to be. When we started, we were already behind the eight ball.”
Moving forward, cities will have to determine if they’re prepared to sink resources into cleaning vandalism, staging law enforcement to protect monuments or installing cameras nearby.
“There’s a lot of pressure right now on local communities,” said Levin, the Civil War historian. “If there are loopholes to be had, they’re going to find them if they want to remove their statues. That pressure and their intensity is going to determine how it evolves.”
Southern state governments – which in recent years have continued to resist the removal of monuments – have begun to show some degree of progress.
Soon after the Mississippi Legislature – facing pressure from the NCAA and Southeastern Conference to no longer hold championship games in the state – voted in June to establish a new state flag that did not feature the Confederate battle flag, a key commission in Tennessee cast a vote in favor of removing a bust of Forrest from the state Capitol.
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The same commission, composed of state officials, legislative appointees and private citizens appointed by the governor, had voted against doing so in 2017. The fate of the Confederate bust still must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Tennessee Historical Commission, as part of the state’s Heritage Protection Act.
It was behind-the-scenes maneuvering of Republican Gov. Bill Lee – making strategic appointments to the commission and working to whip votes – that resulted in a different outcome this time.
A bipartisan will to remove other monuments will likely be key elsewhere.
“When you name a park after someone or put up a statue of them, it is to honor that person,” Strickland said. “And you’re telling all your citizens that this is somebody that we need to honor.
“We all came together to do it. We really came together – white, Black, Democrat, Republican, saying it’s a new day in Memphis.”
Brian Lyman reports for the Montgomery Advertiser. Natalie Allison writes for The Tennessean in Nashville.
This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: As Confederate monuments fall, local communities blocked by state laws