According to a report by AL.com today, Birmingham’s mayor, William Bell, ordered the Confederate monument at Linn Park to be covered “while legal options to remove it are being considered.” According to the report, Bell made this decision a few hours after Birmingham City Council President Johnathan Austin asked him to remove Confederate monuments from city parks.
The monument is across the street from Birmingham’s City Hall and the Jefferson County Courthouse.
The article said the monument was temporarily covered in plastic this afternoon, which was later removed, though it’s expected to be covered again with plywood in the next few days, according to Bell’s office.
The problem Bell faces is that his plans are likely a violation of state law. This summer, following the removal of Confederate monuments in Louisiana, the Alabama Legislature passed the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, which says that monuments over 40 years old cannot be cannot be removed, altered, or renamed. Whether covering the monument with plywood constitutes “altering” it will likely be debated, but it’s not a stretch to presume Bell’s move will be challenged in court if he goes through with his plans.
This monument controversy is not new to Birmingham, and it appears as if last weekend’s tragic events in Charlottesville, VA followed by yesterday’s uncontested destruction of a Confederate monument in Durham, NC have provided an opportunity that the monument’s opponents hope to seize, just as they did two summers ago in the wake of the Charleston, SC shootings. At that time, Birmingham’s Parks and Recreation board voted unanimously to remove the same monument.
Related: Birmingham caves to political correctness votes to remove Confederate monument from park (July 1, 2015
President Trump spoke to the issue today, strongly condemning the white supremacists who demonstrated in Charlottesville Saturday, but distinguishing that issue from the removal of monuments. This afternoon he Tweeted, “George Washington was a slave owner…Are we going to take down statues of George Washington?”
Birmingham native Condoleeza Rice agrees. In May, she told Fox News,
“I am a firm believer in ‘Keep your history before you,’” Rice responded. “I don’t actually want to rename things that were named for slave owners. I want us to have to look at those names and recognize what they did, and be able to tell our kids what they did and for them to be able to have a sense of their own history…When you start wiping out your history, sanitizing your history to make you feel better, it’s a bad thing.”
Rice is not blind to the sins of the past, but also points out that we live in a different time, telling Fox News,
“The Constitution originally counted my ancestors as three-fifths of a man. In 1952 my father had trouble registering to vote in Birmingham, Alabama. And then, in 2005, I stood in the Ben Franklin room and took that same oath of office, and it was administered by a Jewish woman Supreme Court justice. That’s the story of America.”
On the other side of the debate, National Review makes the case that Robert E. Lee himself opposed the monuments in the wake of the terrible war between the states. “I think it wiser,” Lee said, “not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”
While opinions abound on both sides of this issue over which unity is never likely, Rod Dreher of the American Conservative shared his own:
Of the finding of grievous fault among our ancestors there is no end. We should be deeply reluctant to remove statues and monuments, simply because it is very easy to yield to the passions of a given place and time, and to erase history. When I have been with my kids in the presence of Confederate monuments, I have done my best to explain to them what the Confederacy was and what slavery was. They are under no illusion that the Confederate cause was just.
But I have also stood with them in the local cemetery, lighting a candle on the grave of their great-great-great grandfather, who fought for the Confederacy with incredible bravery, and was wounded at the Battle of Port Hudson. He was a poor country man who held no slaves. My guess is that he fought for the South for the reason most Soviet soldiers fought for the USSR: not because he was enthusiastic about the ideology behind the state (though he might have been), but because it was home, and it was under attack. I have had to explain to my kids why it is right to honor this ancestor of ours, even though he fought for a government and a society that enslaved black human beings.
This is what history does to us. History is not there to comfort, to encourage, or to be instrumentalized. True, the society that erects monuments does so because it wants its people forevermore to honor whoever or whatever is being memorialized. All monuments are instrumentalizations of history. The City of New Orleans did not erect the Jefferson Davis monument in 1908 for neutral or scholarly reasons, heaven knows. But once in place, monuments bear witness to what values the people of a place once hallowed. When our ancestors got something very wrong, then that’s often worth remembering publicly.
Wherever this Birmingham battle ends, it’s reasonable to conclude given the new state law that it will not be resolved without a storm of conflict in the days to come.