In 2015, a white supremacist entered a South Carolina church and killed nine black worshippers. In the aftermath, pictures emerged of the shooter posing with a Confederate flag, which sparked an extensive national debate about symbols of the Confederacy.
Much of this debate has centered on Confederate monuments, with activists calling for their removal. This week, decisions in Alabama and North Carolina cleared the path for some of these monuments to be removed.
On January 14, Judge Michael Graffeo issued a ruling against the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, a 2017 law that prohibits the removal of historical monuments that have been in place for more than 40 years. In his ruling, Graffeo argued that the law violated the rights of citizens opposed to Confederate monuments and “placed a thumb on the scale for a pro-Confederacy message.”
The ruling came more than a year after city officials in Birmingham, Alabama, (where the majority of residents are black) constructed a plywood box to cover up a monument dedicated to Confederate soldiers and sailors. In 2017, state Attorney General Steve Marshall sued Birmingham, arguing that the move violated state law.
Graffeo argued in his ruling that Birmingham, a city with deep ties to the civil rights movement, did have a compelling interest in covering up the monument, adding that the memorial preservation law was unenforceable.
”Just as the state could not force any particular citizen to post a pro-Confederacy sign in his or her front lawn, so too can the state not commandeer the city’s property for the state’s preferred message,” Graffeo wrote.
The wooden barrier around a Confederate monument in #LinnPark will remain in place for the time being. A judge ruled yesterday the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act doesn't require the city of #Birmingham to remove the barrier. #confederate #historicalmonument pic.twitter.com/WDa58Tjcpv— WBHM 90.3 FM (@WBHM) January 15, 2019
The same day that Graffeo announced his ruling, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced that it was removing the base of its controversial Silent Sam monument, part of which had been damaged by protesters last year. “I am confident this is the right decision for our community – one that will promote public safety, enable us to begin the healing process and renew our focus on our great mission,” UNC Chancellor Carol Folt tweeted.
The Alabama and North Carolina decisions serve as the latest developments in an ongoing national debate about Confederate monuments and how they should be perceived as America discusses how best to acknowledge its history of racial discrimination and violence and the enduring legacy of slavery.
The debate over Confederate monuments has been raging for years
The 2015 Charleston shooting, and events that followed, like a white supremacist rally and the death of a counterprotester in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, sparked a national conversation about racism and white supremacy. As a result, activists and lawmakers began a new push to take down Confederate monuments and memorials, but this effort was met with strong opposition from some states — and even the president himself.
Supporters of the monuments argue that their removal would amount to an effort to “change history,” regularly framing the Confederacy and the war it fought as being about states’ rights and Southern heritage. But critics of the monuments, a movement most vocally led by black activists, note that this “Lost Cause” framing of history has long ignored that the war was truly fought to preserve slavery, a system of bondage that continues to affect African Americans 150 years after it was abolished.
At times, this debate has led to fights between city and state governments, especially in states that have passed laws prohibiting local governments from doing anything with their monuments without state input. Several states, including Alabama, have laws preventing local governments from removing monuments.
In recent years, some local governments have found creative ways around these laws. In Tennessee, local officials in the majority black-city of Memphis found a loophole in a state law preventing the removal of Confederate monuments that were located on public property. That loophole allowed the city to remove two monuments in 2017, a move that was swiftly criticized by state lawmakers. And in Charlottesville, Virginia, city and state officials could soon go to trial to determine if the city is allowed to remove its monuments.
In Alabama, the attorney general’s office says it plans to appeal Graffeo’s ruling, and the Birmingham monument is expected to remain in place during the appeal. But for now, the decision has reaffirmed a city’s right to determine the history it chooses to honor — and the history it wants to move past.