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University of Alabama students want to name a building after Harper Lee — not a KKK leader

Pulitzer Prize winner and To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee smiles before receiving the 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House November 5, 2007, in Washington, DC.
Pulitzer Prize winner and To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee smiles before receiving the 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House November 5, 2007, in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A junior at the University of Alabama has launched a petition asking that a building on campus be renamed to honor Harper Lee, the late author, rather than a former senator who was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

The petition, launched four days ago upon Lee’s quiet passing, has already garnered 2,328 signatures as of this morning. It calls on the university president to erase a prominent relic of the university’s racist past.

"[John Tyler] Morgan was a general in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, and post-war, a six-term senator from the state of Alabama," it reads. "He was also a Grand Dragon in the Ku Klux Klan, and used his legislative power to promote racist policies and practices."

The plea holds particular significance at the University of Alabama, where in 1963, then–Gov. George Wallace refused to allow black students to enroll, nine years after the Supreme Court had outlawed segregation in public schools. And Lee, a University of Alabama alumna, offers a worthy replacement. Her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird celebrates racial justice in the South.

Whether or not the signees’ call to rename the English department building is heeded, this petition joins a growing chorus at campuses across the country to expunge prominent monuments to slaveowners, Confederate sympathizers, and segregationist public figures.

After the shooting at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, calls broke out at Yale, where one of the university’s residence halls is named for John C. Calhoun, perhaps one of history’s most ardent defenders of slavery. Around the same time, Georgetown announced it would rename two campus buildings honoring former university presidents who had sold slaves to pay off the school’s debts, and the University of Mississippi quietly lowered its state flag (which prominently features the confederate flag emblem) after students and faculty there protested.

The demands are shaping a larger national conversation about whether such symbols should be removed if they make today’s students uncomfortable, or whether doing so amounts to erasing history.

Go deeper:

  • This op-ed in the Dallas Morning News argues that removing Confederate symbols is not a productive way to confront history.
  • Read Libby Nelson’s essay on why a racial reckoning is overdue on college campuses.
  • The Atlantic explains why students at elite universities want to rid their campuses of their most cherished traditions.

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