In a move to prevent communities from addressing racially insensitive memorials, symbols, and monuments, the Alabama legislature passed an unprecedented bill that prohibits the “relocation, removal, alteration, renaming, or other disturbance of” any Confederate or other monument that is at least 40 years old. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act into law on Wednesday.
SB 60 was passed May 19 by the Republican-controlled state legislature over the strenuous opposition of African American lawmakers who objected that the monuments honor the shameful legacy of slavery. The new law also prohibits renaming buildings and streets with historical names that have been in place at least 40 years, and requires approval from a new commission to change or rename buildings, streets, schools, or other monuments that are between 20 and 40 years old.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican Senator Gerald Allen, first introduced legislation to shield Confederate memorials after Alabama removed the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds in 2015, following the killings of African American worshippers in a Charleston church by a young white man who embraced Confederate iconography. Although an 88-foot-tall Confederate monument remains there — one of 59 Confederate markers in the state capital — hundreds of white Alabamians gathered in Montgomery to protest the flag’s removal, alleging cultural genocide and holding signs proclaiming that “Southern Lives Matter.” Across the South, some 132 Confederate rallies took place within six weeks of the Charleston shooting, including a Ku Klux Klan rally at the South Carolina statehouse demanding the flag’s return.
Also in 2015, Birmingham’s park board approved a resolution to remove a 52-foot-tall Confederate monument in a downtown park. The new law empowers the Attorney General to fine local governments that control the public property on which these monuments are located $25,000 for each violation of the statute.
After the Charleston massacre, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu proposed removing four monuments honoring Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, and a deadly insurgency by white supremacists against an integrated police force and state militia. On Friday, as the final statue came down, he spoke about the need to confront the truth of America’s history. “These statues are not just stone and metal,” Landrieu said. “They’re not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy — ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for.”
In response, Mississippi state Rep. Karl Oliver wrote that those statues were “erected in the loving memory of our family and fellow Southern Americans,” and if Landrieu and his supporters want to “destroy historical monuments of OUR HISTORY, they should be LYNCHED!”
EJI has been challenging the way history has been presented in the American South, both the romanticizing of the tragic eras of slavery, lynching, and segregation as well as the absence of markers that acknowledge and commemorate victims of racial terror. EJI director Bryan Stevenson explained to Vox this week that what we do in memorial spaces says a lot about who we are. “The American South is littered with the iconography of the Confederacy,” he said. “We are celebrating the architects and defenders of slavery. I don’t think we understand what that means for our commitment to equality and fairness and justice.”
A narrative of racial difference was created to legitimate, perpetuate, and defend slavery in America. Advocates of slavery argued that science and religion supported the fact of whites’ racial superiority: white people were smart, hard-working, and more morally evolved, while black people were dumb, lazy, childlike, and in need of the guidance and supervision provided by enslavement.
Ending slavery did not eradicate this elaborate mythology of black inferiority. “Freeing” the nation’s enslaved black people without undertaking the work to deconstruct the narrative of inferiority doomed freedmen and -women and their descendants to a fate of subordinate, second-class citizenship. In the place of slavery, this belief in racial hierarchy took expression in many new forms, including lynching and other methods of racial terrorism, segregation and other “Jim Crow” laws, and mass incarceration.
More than a generation after the Civil War, Southern whites began asserting their social and cultural dominance by embracing a revisionist history that portrayed the Civil War as a conflict in which the Confederate cause was heroic, honorable, and deserving of tribute. The conflict was recast as one unrelated to the institution of slavery, and the lesson of the Civil War as well as the suffering of generations of enslaved black people was lost. This myth ignored the true brutality of that time period and distorted our national memory of the critical links between American slavery, the Civil War, and race.
“In this country, we don’t talk about slavery,” Stevenson observes. “We don’t talk about lynching. Worse, we’ve created the counternarrative that says we have nothing about which we should be ashamed. Our past is romantic and glorious.” He argues that we need to increase our shame in order to truthfully and meaningfully confront the legacy of racial injustice in this country.
In faith perspectives, to get to salvation — at least in the Christian tradition — you have to repent. There is no redemption without acknowledgement of sin. It’s not bad to repent. It’s cleansing. It’s necessary. It’s ultimately liberating to acknowledge where we were and where we want to go.