Thirty years ago as a graduate student at the University of Alabama, I toured the Alabama Capitol and the Alabama Department of Archives and History with some friends.
Way back then, official Alabama history exhibits still functioned more or less as paeans to the white planter class that dominated the political and economic fortunes of this state, except for the hilly northern climes of Alabama and other parts of the state where plantocracy maintained only a tenuous grasp.
A year or so ago, my wife and I took a day trip to Montgomery to tour the same places. So much had changed. The Alabama Department of Archives and History now features entire exhibits associated with people who had been previously marginalized or overlooked entirely: the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Creek Indian tribes who were eventually forced to relinquish their lands in the decades following white settlement; the slaves who accompanied their white masters, however reluctantly, to the canebrakes of the Black Belt to build a cotton empire; and the white Southern yeoman — my forebears — who eked out a precarious living in the foothills of north Alabama and other regions ill-suited to large-scale cotton farming.
The slavery exhibit was an emotionally wrenching experience. It included a horrific account from a plantation in Florence, located some 20 miles from where I grew up and the site of the regional university where I earned my undergraduate degrees. The account related how female slaves who failed to acquire their daily quota of cotton were stripped naked and whipped in front of their fellow slaves.
Other exhibits offered somewhat more uplifting and even inspiring accounts. I also noted more black and brown faces among the portraits of prominent Alabamians — a dramatic change from 30 years ago. I headed home that afternoon with the sense that many of the complicated pieces of Alabama’s past were being snapped together, like a Lego set, into an unusually rich, multifaceted depiction of our state’s singular history.
To be sure, we have a way to go. The Alabama Capitol remains largely mired in its antebellum and segregationist past. A massive Confederate monument, the cornerstone of which was laid by former Confederate President Jefferson Davis, flanks the north façade of the Capitol. A tall, stately statue of the Confederate President stationed immediately in front of the Capitol greets visitors, all of whom, upon entering the building’s main entrance, pass within inches of a six-pointed star installed by the Sophie Bibb Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy that marks the precise spot on which he was inaugurated as the Confederacy’s first and only president.
I would not be surprised if an initiative is undertaken within the next few years to install a statue of Martin Luther King on the front lawn of the Capitol or a civil rights monument on in front of the Capitol’s west façade, which ironically faces the First White House of the Confederacy, to commemorate the fact that the state Capitol was the culmination of the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965.
So much progress has been — and likely will be — made.
At least, one can hope.
Yet, even as Alabama and the rest of the South struggle to snap together these disparate pieces, a movement is under way in several major Southern cities, notably New Orleans, to expunge monuments to Confederate heroes.
Southerners regardless of their race or political convictions should steadfastly oppose the removal of any monument. They and other historical markers constitute touchstones that not only provide us with means by which to judge our past but also a context in which to envision our future. Confederate monuments are as conspicuous a sight in the South as kudzu vines and cotton bolls and understandably so. They not only commemorate an almost unfathomable expenditure of blood but also the most critical juncture in Southern history: the transition from the antebellum to the postbellum South, one that not only led to the formation of the modern South but also to the enfranchisement and empowerment of ex-slaves and their descendants.
That’s the plain and, to many, the inconvenient and unpalatable truth. The civil rights movement can only be understood within the context of the rise, defeat and subsequent occupation of the defeated Confederate States of America.
By expunging these monuments, we eliminate much of the context for understanding why the civil rights movement emerged in the first place. These monuments scattered by the thousands across the South, silently standing guard over town squares, parks and major thoroughfares of small towns and large cities alike, attest to the zeal with which they were conceived and erected by an impoverished and deeply embittered people in the decades following Lee’s surrender. And for this reason, they speak as much as any historical artifact to the challenges facing civil rights marchers and protesters as they undertook their struggle for change.
As heretical and as insensitive as this may sound to some, these Confederate monuments complement rather than detract from the civil rights movement.
The strategy of snapping together the disparate pieces of Southern history has served us Southerners well, despite the occasional inconveniences it has caused. We are drawing closer to the day when we will be one people with a common history and a shared vision of the future.
But for that day to come, we must continue the struggle to secure as complete and as nuanced a picture as possible of our region’s history.