Monuments Get Legal Protection From Removal in Alabama

by | May 26, 2017

By Brian Lyman

Gov. Kay Ivey this week signed a bill preventing cities from removing most monuments 20 years and older.

Eileen Jones, a spokeswoman for Ivey, confirmed that she had signed the legislation Wednesday. Ivey's move comes amid an ongoing national debate over the purpose of Confederate monuments, and puts a period on a lengthy debate in the state Legislature where critics said the bill preserved monuments that celebrated Alabama's shameful history of slavery and segregation.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, forbids the removal or alternation of any monument, memorial street, school named for a historic figure or event or "architecturally significant building" on public property that is 40 years old or older.

It requires an newly created state commission, called the Committee on Alabama Monument Preservation, to approve changes to monuments, and buildings that are 20 to 40 years old. Schools that are 20 years or older may apply to the commission to be renamed.

A government that renamed, altered or removed a monument or historic building without prior approval from the committee would be fined $25,000 for each violation.

Allen first filed his bill in early 2016, months after a national debate erupted over the display of Confederate emblems and memorials following the murder of nine people, all black, at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The shooter was a white supremacist who displayed the Confederate flag in photos.

Gov. Robert Bentley and state officials removed Confederate flags from around the state Capitol following the shooting. Birmingham officials made moves to remove a monument to Confederate sailors in Linn Park, but the effort bogged down following lawsuits from a Confederate heritage group. Officials in New Orleans in the last few weeks have removed statutes of Confederate officials and generals in that city.

Allen said his bill did not specifically attempt to protect Confederate monuments but all monuments, whether they reflected well or poorly on the state.

"The Memorial Preservation Act is intended to preserve all of Alabama's history -- the good and the bad -- so our children and grandchildren can learn from the past to create a better future," the senator said in a statement Wednesday.

Critics said the bill aimed to protect Confederate monuments, which were raised in the late 19th and early 20th century to celebrate white supremacy. Rhonda Brownstein, legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a statement that Ivey was signaling "that lauding white supremacy is more important than demonstrating equality for all Alabamians."

"Other states and municipalities are removing these monuments from public property and placing them in museums, where people can learn the full history of slavery, the Civil War and the Confederacy," the statement said. "That's where they belong."

Black Democrats in the House of Representatives slowed business in the chamber to protest the bill and what they said was an unacceptable redistricting map. Allen's legislation got final passage on the last day of the 2017 legislative session on Friday.

The bill does not provide an explicit option to remove a monument 40 years or older. Supporters said in a House debate said there was an implied power from cities to go to court to remove or alter a statue, but that language is not in the bill.

Officials in Mobile expressed concerns that the broad definition of "architecturally significant building" -- which the law calls a building on public property that by its "very nature, inherent design, or structure constitutes a monument" -- would make it difficult to restore, repair or rehabilitate buildings for economic development.

(c)2017 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.)