Nationwide protests spark renewed local efforts to get rid of Confederate symbols

Cities and states across the country are seeing renewed efforts to remove Confederate symbols following the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died last month after a white police officer kneeled on his neck during an arrest.

A number of monuments honoring Confederate figures have been toppled by protesters or ordered for removal by local leaders in states like Alabama, Virginia, Kentucky, and Indiana.

And the past week has seen a raging national debate over whether to rename military bases named for Confederate leaders and remove Confederate statues from the Capitol.

ADVERTISEMENT

The debate over the appropriateness of Confederate symbols in public spaces has long been a simmering and slow-moving issue. But, prompted by national outcries and local protests, cities and states have suddenly moved into warp speed to get rid of monuments and plaques that some see as a part of history and others as symbolic of the racist structures on which the country was built. 

While activists have lauded the moves by cities, they say bringing down statues should be just a starting point.

Jacksonville, Florida, this week became one of a growing number of U.S. cities to see the removal of a Confederate soldier statue that local outlets reported had sat in the center of the town at a local park for more than 120 years.

The move was swift and silent.

According to First Coast News, the city came in the wee hours of Tuesday morning without notice to remove the statue ahead of a planned protest later that day. At the protest, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry (R) announced the statue had been removed and that “others in this city will be removed as well.”

In a follow-up statement to The Hill on Wednesday, Curry said that he ordered the statue’s removal “as the start of a commitment to everyone in our city that we will find a way to respect each other and thrive.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Brian Hughes, the chief administrative officer of the city of Jacksonville, said the move by the mayor was the start to a “process of balancing how we consider our past while working together to build a prosperous future” in the city and added that Confederate markers being taken down will be “preserved as artifacts until a collaborative process reaches consensus for their future.”

While Isaiah Rumlin, the president of the Jacksonville branch of the NAACP, called the step by the city a “good move forward” in remarks to The Florida Times-Union, he said “just by removing a statue, that’s not going to solve the problem.” 

“This is not minor leagues. This is the major leagues. And we’ve been dealing with it for 401 years and it took the death of another black man for this to go viral and we know it’s happening right here in the city of Jacksonville,” he said. 

A day before the removal in Jacksonville, a statue dedicated to Confederate officer John B. Castleman in Louisville, Kentucky, also came down after a judge recently ruled in favor of the city’s right to remove the statue following a legal battle with a local group. 

Just a few months earlier, in March, police in Louisville shot and killed an unarmed 26-year-old black woman named Breonna Taylor in her home while executing a no-knock search warrant.

In a statement explaining his decision to the remove the statue, the city’s mayor, Greg Fischer (D), said the “events of the past weeks have shown clearly that it’s not enough just to face our history – we’ve got to address its impact on our present.”

“Too many people are suffering today because the promises of justice and equality enshrined in our Constitution are unfulfilled by a society that devalues African-American lives and denies African Americans justice, opportunity and equity,” he continued. “That’s got to change. People want and deserve action. We need a transformation.” 

While the move in Louisville was met with praise from some locals who told the Courier-Journal they were glad to see the marker gone, others are calling for further action to be taken by the city in the wake of Taylor’s death. 

“We don't need our city taking down symbols of white supremacy,” Jecorey Arthur, an activist who the local paper reported is also running for a seat on the local city council, tweeted earlier this week. “We need our city taking down systems of white supremacy. While we're removing this let's remove no-knock warrants, cash bail, and the increase to LMPD weapons in the upcoming budget.” 

The push to remove Confederate monuments in many cities has been going on for years, and had seen some incremental success, particularly after events like the 2015 Charleston, S.C., church shooting, when a white supremacist, Dylann Roof, fatally shot nine black parishioners at the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church.

Days after the shooting, an activist, Bree Newsome, captured national headlines after literally taking matters into her own hands and climbing to the top of a 30-foot pole outside the South Carolina statehouse to take down a Confederate flag that sat atop it.

Less than a month later, the flag was officially taken down, according to The Washington Post, after the effort to remove the flag drew support from state lawmakers and the state’s governor at the time, Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyNikki Haley trolled over complaints about The Popcorn Factory Tennessee primary battle turns nasty for Republicans The 'pitcher of warm spit' — Veepstakes and the fate of Mike Pence MORE (R). 

ADVERTISEMENT

But the pace at which statues and monuments have come down recently is remarkable, because they “have been so difficult to get rid of,” James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, told The Hill.

“These statues have had such longevity that I’m surprised that we actually may be on the road to finally getting rid of them,” he said, adding he thinks more white Americans are beginning to “understand what African Americans have been saying for over a century about these statues.”

“Opposition to these statues is not new, African Americans have known for a long time that these statues are a problem, that they express values that are racist,” Grossman said, while referring to such symbols as a “public authority of white supremacy.” 

According to updated figures The Hill obtained from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on Friday, 143 symbols that celebrate the Confederacy, including 57 Confederate monuments, have been removed from public grounds in the country since 2015. 

Lecia Brooks, a spokesperson for the SPLC, said 773 Confederate monuments still stand, with one pending removal.

“There are actually nearly 1,800 Confederate symbols left in the US,” Brooks said. “These symbols include government buildings, confederate monuments and statues, plaques, schools, parks, counties, cities, military bases, streets and highways named after anyone associated with the Confederacy.”

Residents in at least three different cities in Alabama are also seeing efforts to bring down symbols harkening back to the state’s Confederate past.

ADVERTISEMENT

On Monday, the University of Alabama announced that school officials had authorized the removal of plaques located outside its library in Tuscaloosa that commemorate past students who “served in the Confederate Army and members of the student cadet corps involved in defending the campus.” The school added that the three plaques would be moved to “more appropriate historical setting on the recommendation” of its president, Dr. Stuart Bell.

The school also said in the announcement that a group of several members of its board of trustees have since been tasked with reviewing and studying “the names of buildings on all UA System campuses” and reporting to the university’s board “on any recommended changes.”

Days before that in Mobile, a statue of Confederate Admiral Raphael Semmes, which The Associated Press reported had stood for more than a century, was taken down.

And city officials in Birmingham earlier this month took down the Confederate Sailors and Soldiers monument, which sat in Linn Park, after more than a century. The removal came after demonstrators took down a nearby statue of Charles Linn, who served in the Confederate Navy.

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin (D) was seen on video telling a group of protesters at a demonstration to allow his office “to finish the job” for them. 

“I wanted you to hear it directly from me. But I need you to stand down,” he said then.

ADVERTISEMENT

State officials are already threatening legal action against both Mobile and Birmingham, citing the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, a 2017 law that bars the relocation, removal or “disturbance of any architecturally significant building, memorial building, memorial street, or monument located on public property which has been in place for 40 or more years.”

The office of the state attorney general, Steve Marshall (R), told Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson in a letter that Mobile would be subjected to a fine of $25,000 if the move is permanent. He told AL.com he would be bringing a lawsuit against Birmingham, renewing a legal battle between the city and the state over the statue.

In a statement to The Hill on Sunday, Stimpson confirmed that the statue of Semmes has since been moved to the History Museum of Mobile.

“We believe this action to be consistent with the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act. If the Attorney General determines otherwise, we will respect his decision and stand ready to work with his office,” he said. “I have no doubt that moving the statue from public display was the right thing to do for our community going forward. The values represented by this monument a century ago are not the values of Mobile in 2020.”

The push to remove Confederate symbols in public spaces in the nation has also found support among state-level elected leaders.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) on Saturday lauded the decision to remove a statue of Jefferson Davis from the state Capitol’s rotunda.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) recently tried to have a monument to Robert E. Lee taken down in Richmond but hit a roadblock after being met with a challenge in court.

And in Mississippi, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is having serious discussions about changing the state flag – the only one in the country with the Confederate battle flag on it – for the first time since residents voted against doing so ion 2001.

But the efforts have also been met with opposition from some Americans who have compared removing the markers to rewriting the country’s past and say the symbols are a part of Southern heritage.

In a series of tweets earlier this week, President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrat calls on White House to withdraw ambassador to Belarus nominee TikTok collected data from mobile devices to track Android users: report Peterson wins Minnesota House primary in crucial swing district MORE said his “administration will not even consider the renaming” military bases named after Confederate military leaders after Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Esper confirms plans to drop below 5,000 troops in Afghanistan | State Department says it's cleared of wrongdoing in emergency arms sales before investigation's release 400 'hard-core' Taliban prisoners to be released ahead of Afghan peace talks Esper says officials still don't know source of Beirut blast MORE and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthyRyan McCarthyMaryland GOP governor: Fauci has 'never let me' down Trump mocks push to rename Fort Bragg: 'We're going to name it after the Rev. Al Sharpton?' Pentagon mulling plan to ban Confederate flag without mentioning it by name: report MORE recently expressed openness to the idea.

“It has been suggested that we should rename as many as 10 of our Legendary Military Bases, such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Hood in Texas, Fort Benning in Georgia, etc. These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom,” he wrote in the tweets, though many of his critics took to Twitter shortly after to point out the Confederate side lost the Civil War.

“The United States of America trained and deployed our HEROES on these Hallowed Grounds, and won two World Wars. Therefore, my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations,” he also wrote.

Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderDavis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump Several GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Negotiators 'far apart' as talks yield little ahead of deadline MORE (R-Tenn.), however, said earlier this week, according to The Washington Post, that “it’s always appropriate to review the people and places that we honor to see if they fit the context of the times in which we live.”

While Grossman acknowledged the Confederate monuments are part of American heritage that should not be destroyed, he said the symbols are “a part of our heritage that we’re not proud of.” 

“In the cases of someone like Stonewall Jackson or Jefferson Davis, even though they had other parts of their lives, they wouldn’t be famous if they weren’t Confederate leaders. That’s what made them famous,” he continued, while adding that similar statues have “no other purpose, other than to honor secession and the fight for secession and that is about white supremacy and slavery.”