Project Say Something: Acting Up

The Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, passed in May 2017, has become a contested issue in the state of Alabama recently. The Act prohibits the removal, relocation, alteration, renaming or “other disturbance” to all public buildings, streets, or monuments over 40 years old. The law is problematic to many, who see monuments as symbols of white supremacy. As many historians have pointed out (see recent opinion pieces by historians Eric Foner, “Confederate Statues and ‘Our’ History,” W. Fitzhugh Brundage, “I’ve studied the history of Confederate memorials. Here’s what to do about them,” and Nina Silber, “Worshiping the Confederacy is about white supremacy — even the Nazis thought so”), Confederate Monuments were largely constructed at a time when Jim Crow laws were prominent throughout the south and the citizenship of blacks in these states was systemically denied. Blacks could not vote, did not hold public office, and were literally segregated from southern whites in every public space. In many cases Confederate statues were put up and white supremacy was blatantly asserted at the dedication. In Florence, Alabama, the 1903 dedication of the Confederate memorial saw over 5,000 people watch the speaker, Dr. H. A. Moody declare that northern civilization differs from southern civilization in one important manner “They (northerners) look upon a Negro as a white man with a colored skin and believe education to be the one thing needful. We of the south know better. No other people know him so well or love him so well, but nowhere here is he accorded social equality.”

A defining characteristic of white supremacy is that it defines its citizenry by the color of their skin. While the tie between Confederate monuments and white supremacy should be obviously clear, white politicians have begun to use history as a stand-in for white supremacy. In a recent political ad, Governor Kay Ivey blamed the impetus to remove Confederate monuments on outside agitators and “special interest” groups from Washington. Ivey adds, “We can’t – and we shouldn’t – change, erase, or tear down our history. We should learn from all of it.” It is clear to any observer that the “we” in Ivey’s statements should be read as “white.” The ‘special interest’ groups that want to remove statues of Confederate figures are composed mainly of African Americans from Alabama, including former Birmingham mayor William Bell, who covered up his city’s monument with plywood. Ivey is asserting that people who want to remove monuments are not citizens of Alabama, denying the citizenship of state’s black residents in a manner that harkens back to 1918.

The conversation concerning Confederate monuments in Alabama has become a dog-whistle for white supremacy. Politicians, using the same rhetoric that worked so well for George Wallace in the 1960s, and more recently, Donald Trump in 2016, have found a way to capitalize on latent white supremacy by introducing legislation that preserves it in our public spaces. Removal of monuments, politicians tell us, is done by “outsiders,” people in Washington, or “special interest groups.” By casting African American dissenters as outsiders in their own state, these politicians have spoken to a fundamental desire of white supremacy: the maintenance of the white status quo. African Americans (and white people who want these monuments removed) aren’t citizens; their voices do not count.

While Ivey trots out the old adage that we must learn from history, we cannot agree what it is that we should be learning. What exactly are Confederate monuments teaching us about history? Senator Gerald Allen, who drafted the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, brings out another tried-and-true history cliché, from George Santayana: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is interesting that Allen chose this quote, because it clearly describes Governor Ivey and himself. Ivey and Allen do not remember the past. It is a past when black people were excluded from public spaces. It is a past when black people were disenfranchised. It is a past when a governor attempted to physically block students from getting an education in integrated classrooms. They do not remember the past, they did not learn from the past, and they are attempting to repeat it by verbally revoking the citizenship of people who disagree with them.

Where are historians in all of this? Historians have increasingly placed Confederate monuments into the context in which they belong. Historians use primary research to speak about the motives for putting up Confederate monuments. They track the changes of the placements of monuments, from cemeteries in the 1870s to public spaces in the 1890s and afterwards. They examine the speeches made during the dedication ceremonies. They research newspaper articles and court rulings. Historians bring a depth of knowledge to the conversation that cannot be overlooked. We turn to historians for guidance on historical matters—professionals who study, read, and write about history for a living. Not in Alabama. The eleven person committee charged with interpreting the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act is made up of exactly zero historians. None. Not one. In a state that reveres its history so much that it passes laws to allegedly protect it, this oversight is no mistake.

The state of Alabama has cut historians out of the conversation around Confederate monuments. To their credit, however, Ivey and Allen are learning from some history. For all the rhetoric about learning from history, the proponents of the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act have chosen to learn from the history of white supremacy and have taken a page from the playbook of George Wallace. Wallace stood on the same spot where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederate States of America and proclaimed “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” reaffirming white supremacy in the face of a federal government committed to at least providing for the desegregation of public spaces. More than fifty years after Wallace’s speech, Kay Ivey and Gerald Allen have taken their places beside Wallace as the heirs to Alabama’s legacy of white supremacy, condemned to repeating a history that they do not know and do not care to learn.

Image:  Alabama State Capital, Wikimedia Commons

-Brian Murphy
Brian Murphy works as a historian for the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area and the City of Florence Museums. His research interests include African American history, the history of urban renewal and public housing, and Civil War memory.






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