Camille Bennett: I typically love running in my neighborhood or anywhere where I can see lots of trees and scenery. That’s a part of the joy of actually running for me. But since we started campaigning and protesting to take down the monument, my friends and family convinced me that I needed to do it in a parking lot, which really sucks. But it also helps me realize how much my life has changed since I started this campaign to take down the monument.
Geraldine Moriba: Camille Bennett is the leader of Project Say Something.
Camille Bennett: OK, I’m going to speed up a little bit more.
Geraldine Moriba: A local civil rights group in Alabama.
Camille Bennett: I’m going a little bit faster.
Geraldine Moriba: When she took this role, she didn’t anticipate the violent threats that would come along with it.
Camille Bennett: Oh, I see a car in this parking lot.
Geraldine Moriba: And now even jogging comes with risk.
Camille Bennett: Now, normally what I would do if that car pulled up like that is run to my car and get in because I don’t know who that is. And that’s part of trying to stay safe out here. All right, now I’m on a full run. I’m passing by a U-Haul truck that was in the parking lot. I usually circle around it a few times and make sure no one is in it. All right, now I’m on the fast interval, which is my favorite, makes me feel like I’m flying. Woo, hoo, hoo.
Geraldine Moriba: This is season two of Sounds Like Hate, a podcast series from the Southern Poverty Law Center. I’m Geraldine Moriba.
Jamila Paksima: And I’m Jamila Paksima. We are examining where we come from, the history we accept as truth, and how sometimes our views influence the people we love towards violent extremist beliefs. This time we’re looking at how parts of American history have been systematically erased for generations. And how Black resistance to this erasure continues, yesterday and today.
Geraldine Moriba: This story is also about how the history of the American Civil War has been shaped by a pro-Confederate lens. We’re reporting on Confederate monuments and symbols of hate on public and private properties in Georgia, Texas and Alabama. A warning to our listeners, this episode contains offensive and violent content.
Camille Bennett: My name is Camille Bennett. I am the owner and director of Focus Scope Child Enrichment Centers and the founder and executive director of Project Say Something.
Geraldine Moriba: What are the circumstances that led to the formation of Project Say Something?
Camille Bennett: The national climate was changing. The Ferguson riots were happening.
Protestors: Hands up don’t shoot.
ABC News: It’s the story that’s ignited fierce passions across the nation.
Camille Bennett: Trayvon Martin.
ABC News: Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, was shot down by a white neighborhood watchman [who] has not at this point been arrested.
Camille Bennett: And someone who was a part of this community said, “Can you please facilitate a discussion about race?”
Missouri Protester: We should all be mad. We should all be angry.
Camille Bennett: And this small little space was, well, it was downstairs, but it was packed. So many people. We stayed for hours.
Jamila Paksima: That evening in 2014, Camille Bennett, a local business owner, founded Project Say Something.
Camille Bennett: And our mission, in short, is to eradicate systemic racism in Alabama, and really draw from the past, connecting present atrocities with past atrocities.
Jamila Paksima: Their first mission: relocate a century-old monument of a Confederate soldier from the front of the Lauderdale County Courthouse in Alabama.
Sheriff Singleton: Sheriff Singleton. May I help you?
Geraldine Moriba: Hi, Sheriff Singleton. This is Geraldine Moriba. How are you?
Sheriff Singleton: I’m doing good and you?
Geraldine Moriba: I’m good. I’m good.
Jamila Paksima: Rick Singleton is the sheriff of Lauderdale County.
Sheriff Singleton: It’s become a little more of a tourist area. We’re right on the banks of the Tennessee River. So we have a lot of fishing.
Geraldine Moriba: Your office is located at the county courthouse. The same place where the Confederate monument is located. Does it have any personal meaning to you?
Sheriff Singleton: The monument?
Geraldine Moriba: Yeah.
Sheriff Singleton: Not, no, not really. I’ll be honest with you, I mean, I think I’m like most people, I’ve never really given it a second thought until this issue come up. When I think of the monument, you know I always just thought the Civil War. I didn’t really think anything specific about the war, what caused the war, what prompted the war to start with or whatever. I’ve never thought about, really, slavery. And, you know, I just, I thought, “Well, that was part of the Civil War.”
Jamila Paksima: Florence is in Lauderdale County, way up in the northwestern corner of Alabama. It’s in an area called the Shoals. Four Alabama governors were born there. And so was W.C. Handy, the “father of the blues.” Dred Scott lived in Florence for a decade starting in 1820. He was a slave who sued for his freedom, his wife’s and his two children’s, in the landmark Dred Scott decision of 1857. The Supreme Court ruled against Scott on the grounds the U.S. Constitution didn’t extend American citizenship to enslaved people. His denial of freedom became a catalyst for the American Civil War. In 2013, a historic marker was erected for Dred Scott at the corner of North Pine and West Tennessee. There are 173 historic markers in Florence, but only 4 are about slavery.
Camille Bennett: We are in front of the Lauderdale County Courthouse.
Geraldine Moriba: I traveled during the pandemic to see the Florence Confederate monument myself.
Camille Bennett: To the left is the Confederate monument that was erected in 1903. We have orange barricades all around the monument and yellow police tape. So when they moved the monument…
Geraldine Moriba: It looks exactly like so many others. The cement base is about 16-feet high. On top, there’s a sculpture of a Confederate soldier standing casually. He’s about 7 feet tall. The butt of his rifle rests by his feet. The barrel is clenched between both hands. The expression on his defeated face is now gone, washed away by weather and time. Right beneath his feet, on the pedestal, are the letters: CSA. It stands for Confederate States of America.
Geraldine Moriba: I’m going to read some of what’s on the base of this monument. On one side, it says, “In memory of the Confederate dead of Lauderdale County.” The second side says, “The manner of their death was the crowning glory of their lives.” And above that are the dates of the Civil War, 1861 to 1865. The third side says, “Glory stands beside our grief.” The fourth side says, “Unveiled with appropriate ceremonies, April 25th, 1903. Florence, Alabama.”
Camille Bennett: They wanted to make sure we understood why it was erected. One of the primary purposes is to make sure that Black people are not given social equality. The monument itself, the idea of celebrating soldiers that went to war to keep Black people enslaved is a problem. The original location was at the old courthouse. It was erected there and a lot happened at the courthouses back then. Black bodies were sold.
Geraldine Moriba: One block south, the original Lauderdale County Courthouse still stands. There are no historic markers or a monument to acknowledge slave auctions were once held there.
Camille Bennett: Then it moved again to where you’re standing, uh, which is Court Street, directly in front of the Lauderdale County Courthouse and a very prominent location. So everyone who tries to do business at the courthouse definitely has to pass by.
Geraldine Moriba: Over the years, the city of Florence has tried to establish itself as representative of the “new South,” a place where racism isn’t tolerated and everyone gets along.
Camille Bennett: I think that the progressive label is meant to attract tourism and money, and then it’s playing off of another false narrative of there being Muscle Shoals sound in the music, and Black and white, and Aretha Franklin coming here, and Black and white people making music. It just ignores a whole, a whole part of our history. So, no.
Lee Freeman: Well, I would consider the people that I know in my sphere of influence as, as pretty progressive on most of the big issues. My name is Lee Freeman, L-E-E F-R-E-E-M-A-N. And I’m the local historian/genealogist at the Florence Lauderdale Public Library in Florence, Alabama. I think a lot of people, Black and white, are just so used to it being there, it’s just like you don’t even register anymore.
Geraldine Moriba: Isn’t that fundamentally the problem, that we have these symbols and monuments of hate all around us and we don’t see them because they’ve been there publicly in our face for so long?
Lee Freeman: Yeah, that’s, that’s a problem. I think that’s just kind of what happens. We see it so long and it just, you walk by and you kind of don’t even notice it anymore. I had to admit that I’m just kind of used to seeing it there. I mean, we’ve obviously got a ways to go. I don’t think people intend to be offensive or hurt anybody else’s feelings. But they really do seem to – they want to honor their Southern heritage without being racist.
Geraldine Moriba: But honoring Southern heritage by ignoring the inhumanity of slavery or that it’s the reason for the Civil War is racist. Here’s the deal: It’s said all wars are fought twice: first in battle, then again in our memories. And memory, or false memories, is exactly how the myth of the “Lost Cause” narrative was born. It’s a deliberate attempt to whitewash the original Confederate mission to perpetuate slavery, and it subverts the fact Confederates lost in an illegal attempt at secession.
Lecia Brooks: That thing that they wanted to do was to continue chattel slavery.
Geraldine Moriba: Lecia Brooks is the chief of staff of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Lecia Brooks: The “Lost Cause” is a false narrative that was created primarily through the support of a group called the United Daughters of the Confederacy. After the Confederacy lost the Civil War, they really sought to lionize or give heroic status to those who fought on the side of the Confederacy. To get away from that truth, there was created this false notion of, “Oh, my gosh, these people were noble and they fought for their states and their rights to operate independently.”
Jamila Paksima: The defenders of the Confederacy say that they’re not racist, they’re defending the heritage and not hate.
Lecia Brooks: The majority of these monuments were created well after the end of the Civil War. So it’s clear to us that these monuments were not erected to honor the war dead, but to advance a false narrative about why the Civil War was fought. We also maintain that these monuments were erected to further assert white supremacy. Many of these monuments were strategically placed in courthouses, in public squares, where African Americans might try to assert their civil and human rights. So, the second peak in the creation of these monuments was during the civil rights movement, another moment in our history when African Americans were asserting civil and human rights. Post-Brown v. Board and the desegregation of public schools, we saw school names be changed immediately to honor Confederate heroes. It shows the lengths that they will go to maintain this false narrative of the “Lost Cause” and, along with that, it’s maintaining a structure of white supremacy.
Jamila Paksima: This intentional rewriting of history is exactly why Bennett founded Project Say Something.
Camille Bennett: They’ve made memes of me.
Jamila Paksima: But she underestimated the torrent of hate and personal attacks.
Camille Bennett: They’ve created paraphernalia, newspapers with my face on it, saying that I’m an extremist and handed them out downtown like that.
Geraldine Moriba: I have screen grabs. With each one, tell me what you see and if you know the story behind it and your reaction to it.
Camille Bennett: OK. Would you like for me to read them?
Geraldine Moriba: Yeah.
Camille Bennett: I’m looking at a Facebook post. And it’s saying, “Make no mistake about it, this group is not civil rights organization.” That’s not me using poor grammar. That’s the way it’s written. “It is a Marxist group with BLM antifa ties involved in a nationwide assault on our civil society. And they must be neutered.”
Geraldine Moriba: That’s violent.
Camille Bennett: Yes, it is violent. Not as violent as some that I’ve seen but certainly violent and certainly inciting, meant to incite violence.
Geraldine Moriba: And that word “antifa” is thrown around against everybody who is not on the far right.
Camille Bennett: Absolutely. Um, the labeling has gotten really creative. Like, you’re a Marxist. You’re antifa. You are, um, extremist, if you’re fighting for racial justice.
Geraldine Moriba: If you’re anti-racist.
Camille Bennett: If you’re anti-racist, absolutely. White people that are actively participating in racism will criminalize your advocacy and your activism is nothing new; it’s been happening for decades. Every point they were making about the Confederate monument is fact, historical fact.
Jamila Paksima: During the period of Reconstruction, following the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, Black Americans went from the bondage of slavery to the horrors of Jim Crow laws and Black codes. Then…
Lecia Brooks: The Alabama State Constitution.
Jamila Paksima: In 1901, these systems of oppression were reinforced in Alabama’s constitution.
Lecia Brooks: It was a tool of systemic racism.
Jamila Paksima: Brooks explains why.
Lecia Brooks: There was a concerted effort in the state legislature that established voter requirements, established who could go to what schools, established resources for schools. It even tried to reduce the political influence of poor whites across the state. So, the harms caused by the constitution still impact the lives of Black people and poor white people in this state to this day. The constitution itself is a perfect example of systemic racism, and systemic racism has to do with processes in laws and systems that are set up to intentionally privilege one race over the other. Without argument, most people can agree that the Alabama Constitution was set up to achieve that goal. Each time, in recent history, that it’s been brought to the voters to rewrite sections of the constitution, it has failed.
Geraldine Moriba: In 1903, 38 years after the Civil War, while white supremacy was being reasserted in courtrooms and state houses across the South, the monument in Florence was being erected. H.A. Moody, a retired physician and Confederate veteran, delivered the dedication speech, published in the Florence Times. The entire speech is available on our website, soundslikehate.org.
Lee Freeman: I’m on page one of the speech.
Geraldine Moriba: Here are excerpts read by local Florence residents who appear in this podcast, including Bennett.
Camille Bennett: So we who served or we have followed as children those great events are captivated by the character and deeds of a Forrest, Lee or Jackson…
Lee Freeman: And half forget the silent, brave, heroic Confederate soldier, who only needed the leadership of those giants of battle to sweep him on to irresistible victory.
Brian Murphy: They knew that between the sovereign states, there was a contract called the Constitution; that it contains certain conditions vital to their happiness. They believe those conditions have been violated, and that therefore they had a right to withdraw. Believing this, inspired with eagerness to emulate their ancestry, they took up arms to defend their rights.
Camille Bennett: And yet another message has the pure white figure for us, a message more wonderful and of higher import than all the rest. In this our Southland flows the purest Anglo-Saxon blood that pulses in any human vein. Isolation, a lack of immigration, fastidious taste and public opinion all have conspired to produce this result.
Lee Murkey: In the Northern states, public opinion leans in the opposite direction… But binding and eternal is our union is and forever shall be, between our countrymen of the North and our countrymen of the South, there was a line drawn, which will separate us in our beliefs and sentiments until it shall fade away in the light of truth and experience.
Camille Bennett: Their civilization differs from ours in one essential that creates an impassable barrier. They 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.
Lee Freeman: No other people know him so well or love him so well, but nowhere here is he accorded social equality.
Brian Murphy: When the highest representative of Northern civilization invites the highest representative of Negro civilization to sit at his table as a social equal, he digs a gulf between us too wide and deep for us to go to them or for them to come to us.
Lee Murkey: Into the form of man God breathed the breath of eternal life and he became a living soul, so separate from the man life forms around them…
Camille Bennett: That when the children of Adam, Sons of God by virtue of that miraculous inspiration, saw that the daughters of men were fair and married them, he sent a deluge that destroyed the mongrel race. We are the sons of God.
Geraldine Moriba: “Mongrel race”? “Sons of god”? There is no mistaking the blatant anti-Black racism here in this dedication speech.
Camille Bennett: This dedication speech really puts it out there. It’s overtly racist. You can be a fifth grader and read the speech and understand that the monument itself was erected to intimidate and make sure that Black people know their place in this community. We can live next door to each other, but they’re letting you know: “Don’t forget, you will never ever ever be equal.” And it’s still true. It’s also very condescending. You know, “We know the Negro. We love the Negro.” But you’re still not human.
Brian Murphy: There’s a lot going on here.
Jamila Paksima: Brian Murphy is a historian and a museum curator in Florence, Alabama.
Brian Murphy: So this concept of purity, this concept of whiteness really takes form, and it’s really an important message to specifically the white Southerners who have nothing other than the fact that they might be white. So, when he’s talking about Anglo-Saxon blood, that’s really what he’s referring to, this thing that binds the people who went out and fought this war and died. I just can’t, I can’t get over the fact that they’re talking about creating a nation and really what they’re doing is destroying a nation and using that nation’s resources as their own. It’s this reversal of the normalization of the act of secession. They seceded from the United States. But to hear them tell it, well, they’re just doing their constitutional duty. They are saying that they are the true heirs to the constitution. They are the ones who are following the constitution. I’ve heard this argument even today, that the Confederacy was right because they were the ones who were interpreting the constitution in the correct way.
Lee Freeman: The South was at the height of the so-called “Lost Cause” mythology where they were trying to reinterpret the war on their terms.
Jamila Paksima: Florence librarian Lee Freeman says this dedication speech was a reflection of the time.
Lee Freeman: And say, “Well, maybe we weren’t really fighting it over slavery, we were fighting it over states’ rights. Ultimately, we lost, but, you know, it was this valiant enterprise, it was doomed to failure.” So they kind of look at it wistfully and romantically.
Geraldine Moriba: So isn’t the monument in Florence representative of that ideology?
Lee Freeman: I can see how you – that, that interpretation on one level, it definitely is.
Geraldine Moriba: You sent me a list of African American businessmen and professionals in Florence, and it was an incredibly impressive list of highly accomplished individuals. Why did you send that to me?
Lee Freeman: I’m very impressed and proud of what our African American community was able to achieve, uh, under decidedly adverse circumstances in such a remarkably short period of time. They founded churches, they established schools, there was about 52 African American businesses that we know of, and I still keep finding African American businessmen all the time that I didn’t know about. So I think that there were enough people on both sides that said, “OK, we’ve got to figure out, uhm, ways to make this thing work, at least on a practical level.” And I think they just, for the most part, were able to find peaceful ways to coexist. There was some friction, and we had two lynchings here. The bad news is there were two lynchings here. The good news is there were only two lynchings here.
Geraldine Moriba: There were only two lynchings.
Lee Freeman: Yeah.
Geraldine Moriba: Only two, like, that’s still…
Lee Freeman: Yeah, it’s still horrible and I’m not trying to justify two lynchings; the good thing is there was only those two.
Geraldine Moriba: Actually, it wasn’t two. it was three. Three men were lynched in this part of Alabama: George Ware, Cleveland Harding and Edmonson. Their names and stories are documented in a database being collected by the Equal Justice Initiative. How many more lynchings happened? We’ll likely never know.
Lee Freeman: I don’t want to push this too far. I mean, I’m not saying it was easy to be a person of color in Florence, Lauderdale, in 1890, but I think we, we didn’t have the racial tension and the racial violence that other places did, certainly during the civil rights era.
Geraldine Moriba: But Lee, this is a town that also had Daughters of the Confederacy.
Lee Freeman: It did.
Geraldine Moriba: Sons of the Confederacy. This does not seem like the town you’re describing where there isn’t the extreme elements.
Lee Freeman: Well, I don’t… those groups existed, but I wouldn’t call and…
Geraldine Moriba: The KKK was here.
Lee Freeman: Well, the KKK was only here briefly, and it never did much. When they were debating whether to found a Ku Klux Klan chapter here, the public sentiment among those progressive whites in most of the elected officials was against the Klan.
Brian Murphy: The city of Florence is about 20% African American.
Geraldine Moriba: Historian Brian Murphy says Lauderdale County has its own history of domestic terrorism.
Brian Murphy: The other thing that we have here that really hasn’t been talked about too much is sort of the violence, the, the Klan violence, the domestic terrorism violence that happened here in the 1860s and 1870s. We’ve got about five really good narratives that were recorded by formerly enslaved people in the 1930s as part of the WPA project to record the voices of the formerly enslaved. Most of them mentioned Klan violence and the terrorism that the Klan brought into this place. And we know that a congressman was run out of here because of Klan violence. And we know that the Klan was started not too far from here in, in Tennessee. What we don’t know is what happened before and after that and in the ways in which Black people were erased from the landscape or the ways in which they were brutalized to not participate in society. So often, Florence is compared to Birmingham or Montgomery, or other places. And we really need to start looking at what happened in Florence. And what that did to shape the culture that we have.
Jamila Paksima: Before the Civil War, before Florence or Lauderdale County existed, Indigenous people lived there.
Geraldine Moriba: So you’ve counted the steps.
Brian Murphy: Many times. Yeah, it’s about, it’s about 70.
Middle woodland peoples built mounds for burial purposes. So, we think that underneath this huge mound there’s a smaller cone-shaped mound, and that’s likely where there are located burials.
Geraldine Moriba: And this is sacred land.
Brian Murphy: Well, we think so.
Jamila Paksima: Murphy is the curator of two museums in Florence. One is the Indian Mound Museum. It is dedicated to one of hundreds of American Indian mounds built along the Atlantic coast starting 2,000 years ago and continuing until the 1700s. These mounds were used as platforms for villages, temples and burial sites. In the U.S., most of them are gone now, deliberately cleared away for farming and construction.
Brian Murphy: So I like to think of it as, um, there’s almost like a double removal. And for enslaved people with more than a double removal. But the first removal is with the native people who lived here. They were removed from their homes via treaty or force in starting really after the treaty of Fort Jackson, um, in 1814, and continuing on until the, obviously, what we know is that the Trail of Tears into the 1830s.
Lee Freeman: I know a lot of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and I’m not sure if I would call them extremists.
Jamila Paksima: Librarian Freeman serves a community where most people refuse to acknowledge any removals.
Lee Freeman: There probably are some guys that are. But the guys I know they emphasize heritage over hatred.
Geraldine Moriba: What does that mean, “heritage over hatred”?
Lee Freeman: Well, I think from their perspective, they would say that means, “We’re not racist. We just want to honor that heritage.”
Lee Freeman: We’re not celebrating slavery, we’re not celebrating racism. White people that have Confederate ancestors want to honor their Confederate ancestors for serving in a cause that they felt was bigger than themselves without honoring slavery or racism. Now, you might argue…
Geraldine Moriba: But how can you separate those two?
Lee Freeman: I don’t know. But that’s what these guys would say. They will argue that, that slavery was not the cause of the war, that it was states’ rights. Well, it was slavery. That was the one state right that was the impetus, immediate impetus for the war. When you read the actual newspaper editorials out of the Florence Gazette, or some of these other newspapers, you see pretty quickly that it was, in fact, about slavery. That was the immediate impetus for the war. What the planters and politicians that were calling for, uh, secession had to do is convince ordinary, non-slaveholding whites why they should support this war, why they had a vested interest in slavery, and enough of those guys sort of bought the propaganda that they signed up for the war.
Geraldine Moriba: So, I’m listening to you, and it sounds to me that you’re explaining all sides. I mean, you’re defending all sides.
Lee Freeman: Well, as a public historian, I see the gray areas, no pun intended.
Geraldine Moriba: “Heritage versus hate.” I mean, that’s semantics.
Lee Freeman: Well, it could very well be. I just. I mean, I know these people. I’ve given programs at Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Geraldine Moriba: You know them. But that doesn’t mean they’re not racist and the things they’re supporting are not racist.
Lee Freeman: And you may be entirely right. What I’ve heard people say is, “Well, you’re, you’re tearing down our history,” um, and no, we don’t want to tear down anybody’s history. We just want to move it. I think it’s important that we keep these kinds of monuments so that we’re reminded visibly with symbols that we can see about what happened in the past. So, there needs to be some context where I can go in, like the Holocaust Museum at Auschwitz or Washington, D.C. As uncomfortable as that is for people to see those, I think we need those visible, tangible reminders of what happened, so we never let this happen again.
Jamila Paksima: Bennett’s family has lived in the northwestern corner of Alabama, not far from the Confederate monument, for four generations. She says moving it is way overdue. She’s asking for it to be relocated less than a mile away to the local Confederate cemetery.
Camille Bennett: Which is quite a compromise, right? I mean, in my opinion, we wouldn’t be wrong if we did ask for it to be destroyed. But the fear, the fragility, the reluctance, the fear of loss of white dominance is not rational.
Geraldine Moriba: Has Project Say Something made a suggestion about what should replace the monument once it’s gone?
Camille Bennett: Absolutely not. I would not suggest a historical figure of any, of any kind. It just needs to be a safe space for everyone, something we can all agree on.
ABC 4029 News: We are following breaking news. A gunman opens fire in a Charleston, South Carolina, church.
Geraldine Moriba: In 2015, nine African Americans were massacred at gunpoint inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Brooks says those murders accelerated the national movement to take down Confederate monuments and symbols.
Lecia Brooks: The person who killed those nine African Americans fetishized the Confederate flag and Confederate symbolism. And so there was a big movement to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds. That lent itself to broader conversation about the removal of these symbols of the Confederacy from public space.
Geraldine Moriba: In 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center published the first Whose Heritage? report identifying 1,747 Confederate symbols and monuments across the United States. 125 of them are in Alabama.
Lecia Brooks: Then the interest in Confederate symbols was revived after the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Protestors: Our streets.
Witness: Holy s**t. That Nazi just drove into people.
Lecia Brooks: Where, once again, we saw the coalescing of neo-Confederates with white supremacists and neo-Nazis. You saw the Confederate flag was present amongst those who marched around the statue of Robert E. Lee.
Geraldine Moriba: In Alabama, lawmakers made several attempts to pass a Memorial Preservation Act to prohibit local governments from moving historical monuments that have been in place for at least 40 years. It’s also designed to prevent buildings and streets from being renamed. On April 10, 2017, Kay Ivey was sworn in as Alabama’s 54th governor. One month later, with 23 yeas and 6 nays, she signed the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act into law. Here she is in a re-election campaign ad the following year defending this law.
Kay Ivey campaign ad: We can’t change or erase our history, but here in Alabama we know something Washington doesn’t: To get where we’re going means understanding where we’ve been.
Lecia Brooks: Alabama is one of six Southern states that has a preservation law that protects Confederate monuments and memorials. They are all Southern states, you won’t be surprised: Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Witness: He is not moving.
Lecia Brooks: And then in the aftermath of the public murder or lynching of Mr. George Floyd, it kind of clicked in people’s minds, oh, this is anti-Black racism. And Confederate monuments and memorials serve as kind of symbols and foundations to support white supremacy. And I say this because people went on their own to Confederate Row in Virginia, they went to Birmingham and tried to take down a monument that the community had fought for some time to have taken down. And this happened all across the country, wasn’t a coordinated effort. People just went there.
Jamila Paksima: In 2020, in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, 166 Confederate symbols were removed from public property. It’s also when Camille Bennett and Project Say Something stepped up their demand for the removal of the Confederate monument in front of the Lauderdale County Courthouse. It sits on land owned by the county. So she started with an appeal to the county commissioners.
Camille Bennett: We wrote an open letter to our county commissioners and said, you know, “We’re demanding that it comes down,” and we also let them know that we will be protesting until it does. But very soon after, I would say maybe a few weeks to a month in, the counter-protester movement came, and that’s when so much changed. You saw it change from that to flat out, “No, I will never move this monument. It is against the law. It’s against our beliefs,” like, they’re doubling down. And that’s because in the county, that’s the rural area. That’s who really votes them in. Those are their constituents. That’s who they really need. So they’re hearing from them. They’re like, “You better not move this.” And they’re like, “All right, I’m not going to move it.” The county commissioners, when they started to double down, they gave a little bit of a window to the city, and they said, “We’re not moving anything. But we found this letter from the United Daughters of the Confederate that says you own the statue. It belongs to you.”
Geraldine Moriba: The city?
Camille Bennett: The county commissioners gave the city that letter and said, “Hey” – now, this is when we have the old mayor – “Hey, we found this says it belongs to you. Here it is.”
Geraldine Moriba: And to be clear, the monument is city owned, but it’s located on county property?
Camille Bennett: Exactly. So there was this tiny window, where the county side is saying, “Wait a minute, now you’re, you’re trying to get us the vote on something, and that’s going to send a red flag to our constituents.” And the city did not move. And the more time that passed, the more they doubled down and said, “You know what? Forget that letter. Forget the letter that says that the statue belongs to you. Forget all of it. We’re never moving it.” How about that?
Geraldine Moriba: What is the new mayor’s position on the monument?
Camille Bennett: His position is that he desperately wants to move the monument, but he has our sheriff, our county sheriff, that’s made several statements in the media that he will arrest anyone, mayor or city official, or moving company, that crosses the barrier.
Geraldine Moriba: We asked to speak with the new mayor. He declined on the grounds of a “pending litigation.” We also asked to speak with the Lauderdale County commission chairman. He declined as well.
Sheriff Singleton: The city wants to relocate the statue.
Geraldine Moriba: Sheriff Singleton agreed to explain what’s happening in his county.
Sheriff Singleton: But they won’t relocate it without the county’s permission to come on county property to remove it. The county commission has taken the position that they cannot grant permission because it’s in violation of the State Preservation Act and they don’t have the authority to give them permission to move it because it’s against the law. Uh, as a sheriff, my responsibility is to uphold and enforce the law, and to be asked to turn a blind eye, to let someone blatantly violate the law, is asking me to compromise my personal and professional integrity.
Geraldine Moriba: Have you looked at the Preservation Act?
Sheriff Singleton: I haven’t read it in its entirety.
Geraldine Moriba: The Preservation Act says that there’s a $25,000 fine if the monument is moved.
Sheriff Singleton: Yes.
Geraldine Moriba: So, if there’s funds to pay that $25,000 fine already, then what’s the problem?
Sheriff Singleton: Well, you know, if, if I’ve got the money in the bank to pay for a DUI fine that does that give me a right to go out and drive drunk?
Geraldine Moriba: You’re comparing the relocation, a fine for relocating a monument to somebody who’s drunk driving?
Sheriff Singleton: No, I’m comparing the law. The law is the law. The law says the statue can’t be moved or altered. Just like the law says, you can’t drive drunk. So, just because I’ve got the money to pay a fine doesn’t mean I can drive drunk.
Geraldine Moriba: Well, also, one is a criminal offense and one is not.
Sheriff Singleton: Well, that’s true, but it’s still the law.
Camille Bennett: If I were a betting woman, I would say that they’re working together.
Geraldine Moriba: So the sheriff is criminalizing an issue that has nothing to do with crime?
Camille Bennett: Absolutely. Obviously, this is a civil issue. If the city chooses to violate the Memorial Preservation Act, that’s a civil issue. But our sheriff is saying, “Well, wait a minute, now, I put that barricade up and I put that tape around there and that’s criminal trespassing.” So, absolutely, he’s making it a criminal issue.
Jamila Paksima: The Alabama Memorial Preservation Act says if a protected monument is removed from public property without first obtaining a waiver, the state attorney general can issue a $25,000 fine. In 2020, an anonymous donor in Florence offered to pay the entire fine for moving the monument. So far, no one has dared cross the police barriers to take it down.
Camille Bennett: And it gives so many white supremacists cover because now they can say, right? “The law stops me from doing this, or the law says that I must protect this.”
Jamila Paksima: Alabama State Representative Mike Holmes is taking the Memorial Preservation Act one step further with the proposal of a new bill. He wants any official who violates or votes in favor of violating the Preservation Act to be fined $10,000 per day until restorative action is taken. It would make it illegal to add contextualizing text to any monument, including Confederate statues.
Lecia Brooks: It’s vindictive. It’s just, it’s vindictive.
Jamila Paksima: Brooks says this is another desperate attempt to protect the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy.
Lecia Brooks: Alabama tried to do the same thing in Birmingham, and they wanted to compound the $25,000 fine for trying to remove the monument there. The mayor got creative and erected some plywood around it, didn’t touch it, didn’t move it, but removed it, in fact, removed it from public gaze by cordoning it off. And that case is in litigation now. So, it’s just, it’s, it’s vindictive and completely amazing that elected officials would go to such lengths to protect monuments that are dedicated to the Confederacy.
John Merrill: It was designed to ensure that monuments that were erected would not be impacted by local efforts, that certain standards had to be met.
Jamila Paksima: John Merrill is Alabama’s secretary of state. His Montgomery office is in the capitol building, a block away from the white house of the Confederacy.
Geraldine Moriba: What is your position on the removal of Confederate monuments?
John Merrill: Well, I think that that’s something that’s best left up to the local community.
Geraldine Moriba: So here’s a timeline, a recent timeline of some of those relocations. In Birmingham a statue of Confederate Officer Charles Lynn was toppled and removed, and then the city paid the $25,000 fine. In Montgomery protesters toppled a statue of Robert E. Lee there in front of a high school that had its namesake, and it was removed. In Mobile a Confederate statue was removed. At the University of Alabama, they authorized the removal of three plaques honoring students who served in the Confederate Army. A Confederate statue outside the county courthouse in downtown Huntsville was removed. Um, and then right now in Florence, Alabama, where I’ve been for the last few days, there’s an effort to remove a monument of a Confederate soldier in front of the county courthouse there.
John Merrill: Right.
Geraldine Moriba: There is a huge amount of opposition to these relocations.
John Merrill: Opposition from the community?
Geraldine Moriba: From the local community. The question I have is, why shouldn’t these monuments be situated in locations where they’ll be contextualized, like a museum or a Confederate park, as you mentioned, or Confederate cemeteries?
John Merrill: I’m not an archivist and I’m certainly not anybody that deals with museum artifacts. So I don’t know why something should be put in a particular place or another. For example, the University of Alabama, you mentioned that is one of the places that was on the timeline. The Confederate monument that you’re talking about, where that plaque was, I would be so bold as to tell you that since I was a freshman at the University of Alabama in 1982, until today, I would say probably less than 5% of the students that have ever attended the University of Alabama in that period of time even knew that that thing was there. As a matter of fact, it was the week before that was removed, I was out there with my wife and two friends from the northwest part of the state, and it was right there in front of us. And their grandchild was down there playing by it. And the week after it was removed, we all talked, and I was the only one that even knew where it was. And we were there with it, and they didn’t even see it.
Geraldine Moriba: So, nobody saw it? It was visible and invisible at the same time.
John Merrill: Exactly.
Geraldine Moriba: Is it about the visibility of the memorial or what the memorial represents?
John Merrill: Nobody even knew it was there.
Jamila Paksima: In our next episode of “Monumental Problems.”
Camille Bennett: Oh, wait a minute. This is when they’re calling for the KKK.
Jamila Paksima: Camille Bennett gets a warning on a social media post.
Geraldine Moriba: What does it say?
Camille Bennett: It says, “We need the KKK back.” This has gotten out of hand.
Jamila Paksima: We also follow the personal journey of a member of our Sounds Like Hate production team to find out why her ancestors in the Texas Hill Country joined the Confederate Army, and how their choices are impacting her family today.
Tamra Gass-Poore’: You cannot make it seem as if what happened 150 years ago is happening right now. This didn’t happen to you.
Jamila Paksima: To learn what you can do in your community or to see a full list of public symbols of Confederacy across the nation, visit the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Whose Heritage? report.
Geraldine Moriba: These are complicated stories about people who hold onto false histories and terroristic ideologies – and draw boundaries that are skin deep.
Jamila Paksima: If you or anyone you know has experienced a hate incident or crime, please contact the appropriate local authorities or elected official. You can also document what happened at splcenter.org/reporthate.
Geraldine Moriba: This is Sounds Like Hate, an independent audio documentary brought to you by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Jamila Paksima: Sounds Like Hate is produced by Until 20 Productions. I’m Jamila Paksima.
Geraldine Moriba: And I’m Geraldine Moriba. Remember, subscribe to receive new episodes. Thanks for listening.