Confederate monuments are removed as Americans consider how to remember the past
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The army of statues across the American South thinned out this year. These are monuments honoring leaders or soldiers of the Southern rebellion of the 1860s. Most went up in later times as a public defense of racial segregation. The 21st century question is not really whether to remember history, but how. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: More than 50 tributes to the Confederacy were removed, relocated or renamed in 2021, according to an ongoing tally from the Whose Heritage project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
LECIA BROOKS: They were monuments. They were schools. They were roadways. We saw a lot of schools change their names, which I think is quite significant.
ELLIOTT: Lecia Brooks is chief of staff at the SPLC.
BROOKS: Because no student should have to go to school in a place that's named after a former enslaver.
ELLIOTT: She points to Jacksonville, Fla., where citizens pushed to change the names of six public schools, including Robert E. Lee High School, named for the Confederate general. But Brooks says some 2,000 memorials remain, mostly in the South.
BROOKS: They're continuous symbols of white supremacy.
ELLIOTT: The Whose Heritage project started keeping count after the 2015 massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. At the time, images of the man who killed nine worshippers posing with the Confederate flag prompted South Carolina and Alabama to remove the flag from state Capitol grounds. Walmart and other retailers quit selling Confederate merchandise.
Brooks says two years later, there was another spike in doing away with Confederate symbols after the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., and then last year, when the memorials became a flashpoint after the police killing of George Floyd.
BROOKS: It felt to me like people kind of put together all the pieces and were able to identify that as being foundational to white supremacy. It's like people understood it, and it was a tangible thing they could point to as being anti-Black racism.
ELLIOTT: Early this year, Mississippi began flying a new state flag featuring a magnolia blossom instead of the Confederate battle emblem. In Washington, D.C., the House of Representatives voted to remove all Confederate statues from public display at the U.S. Capitol. And Virginia, the state with the most Confederate monuments, led the way in taking them down.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE CHEERING)
ELLIOTT: Crowds cheered as a giant statue of Robert E. Lee on his horse was dismantled in Richmond in late September.
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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Hey, hey, hey, goodbye.
ELLIOTT: And then in Montgomery, Ala., a city known as both the cradle of the Confederacy and the birthplace of the civil rights movement, local leaders are taking stock of street names. Mayor Steven Reed.
STEVEN REED: We renamed Jefferson Davis Avenue, or Jeff Davis Avenue as it was printed on our street signs, after civil rights attorney Fred D. Gray.
ELLIOTT: Jefferson Davis was the first president of the Confederacy. Fred Gray's clients included Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks during the Montgomery bus boycott. Gray, now 91 years old, grew up in Montgomery in a house on Jeff Davis Avenue. Reed, the city's first Black mayor, says the change is about balancing the pain and the progress of the nation.
REED: How is it that those who have been heroic in so many cases around this country are often forgotten, but those who have been at the helm of some of the most sinful moments in our nation's history have been illuminated?
ELLIOTT: But the city's action comes with a price. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall has put Montgomery on notice that it must pay a $25,000 fine for violating the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act or face a lawsuit. Here's Marshall.
STEVE MARSHALL: I think it's a very slippery slope when you allow for elected officials to pick and choose the laws that they believe they should follow and the ones that they shouldn't.
ELLIOTT: Alabama was one of several states that passed monument protection laws as a backlash in the racial reckoning after Charlottesville. The argument was the laws would prevent attempts to erase history. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey used the issue in her reelection campaign at the time.
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KAY IVEY: When special interests wanted to tear down our historical monuments, I said no and signed a law to protect them.
ELLIOTT: Since, Marshall has imposed fines on several local governments for removing or relocating Confederate statues, including Birmingham and Mobile.
MARSHALL: As attorney general, my job is to enforce the law as it is. And unless and until the Legislature changes, we're going to continue to do that.
ELLIOTT: Virginia's Legislature has since revoked its monument protection law, clearing the way for one of the more creative approaches to repurposing a divisive symbol. Charlottesville this summer took down the Robert E. Lee statue that had been the focal point for white nationalists. The city is not putting the giant bronze in a museum or on a battlefield, but has given it to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. Director Andrea Douglas says it will be transformed.
ANDREA DOUGLAS: Take the Robert E. Lee statue, melt it down, form it into ingots that could be used as raw material for an art form.
ELLIOTT: The project will seek community input on what type of art the statue will be made into.
DOUGLAS: Can we create something that, you know, defines the community in the 21st century? What does Charlottesville want to be? We define ourselves as a city that believes in equity, that believes in social justice. So what does that look like in a public space?
ELLIOTT: She says it will be about contending with all of Charlottesville's history, considering the founding of the nation, slavery, Jim Crow and the modern day trauma, when people were killed and injured as a consequence of alt-right ideology in 2017.
DOUGLAS: This is really not about erasing history. It's about taking history and moving it forward.
ELLIOTT: Douglas hopes the art project in Charlottesville can serve as a roadmap for other communities to reimagine what belongs in the public square.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
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