After 115 years Birmingham, Alabama, is removing a towering symbol that celebrates the defense of slavery. The 52-foot-tall Confederate Soldiers & Sailors Monument stood near the center of this super-majority black city, preserved in recent years by a new state law which forbade the removal of monuments more than 40 years old.
But this past weekend, as a wave of protest and unrest swept across dozens of American cities, activists decided they’d had enough. On Sunday night, at a rally protesting the police killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, the crowd marched to Birmingham’s Linn Park. There they whacked at the base of the obelisk with sledge hammers and tried to pull it down with ropes attached to a red GMC pickup truck.
Frustrated in their attempts, unrest spilled into the rest of the park and then the rest of town. Looting, arson and vandalism rippled across the city center despite Mayor Randall Woodfin’s promise that the city would remove the obelisk in defiance of state law.
For the leaders of Birmingham, Sunday was the final straw. A symbol celebrating an attempt to carve a slave empire from the United States couldn’t remain in the heart of a American city home to a black population of over 70%. It was also the most immediately deliverable of the protesters' demands, potentially costing just a $25,000 fine from the state for breaking the law and removing the obelisk.
“Allow me to finish the job for you,” said Woodfin on Sunday night.
Across the United States, statues and monuments have become a focus of activist anger as massive crowds of largely non-violent Americans pour into the streets to express their rage at the latest police killing of an unarmed black man. In Richmond, Virginia, the Daughters of the Confederacy headquarters were set aflame. At the University of Mississippi, another monument to the Confederacy was covered in red painted handprints and daubed with the phrase “spiritual genocide”. In Philadelphia, a statue of former mayor Frank Rizzo – who ran on a platform of white identity politics and unchecked police power – got covered in graffiti.
The ire that confronted these monuments during the George Floyd protests is a small part of the United States’ changing conception of itself. America’s cities have become increasingly racially diverse since the mid-20th century, but the historic figures and incidents they honor have not changed to reflect that fact.
“You have these leftover monuments to a city that no longer exists,” says Timothy Lombadro, who teaches history at the University of South Alabama. “These are left behind symbols of the white city, symbols of the white power structure.”
As soon as Lombardo saw crowds of Philadelphians hitting the streets to protest police brutality on Saturday, he immediately knew the statue would be a focus of outrage. He wrote a book about the former mayor, who asked supporters to “vote white” and bragged that his police department was so extravagantly outfitted that it could “invade Cuba, and win.”
After 1980, as Philadelphia’s white population grew increasingly smaller, Rizzo could no longer win elections. But that didn’t stop his family from raising funds to install a nine-foot-tall bronze likeness of the controversial former mayor right in front of the Municipal Services Building, across the street from City Hall.
Although the Confederate monuments in many Southern US cities are of a far older vintage, mostly dating from the 1890s through the 1920s, Lombardo says they send a similar signal. Defenders argue that removing statues is an affront to history, but he says that these symbols don’t teach residents about the past. Instead they are a symbol of what’s important in a city’s story and what residents should be proud of.
“These things are a constant reminder to respect that idea of white authority,” says Lombardo. “These are symbols that lionize those who regarded people of colour as inferior or robbed them of rights. They practically invite violence”.
Pushback against Confederate monuments across the US South had been occurring for years, even decades, but gained serious traction after the white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine black people at a church service. Clashes over the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left three people dead, proved to be another catalyst.
“There's been a long history of protests against these monuments, but it came from African Americans who had no political power and it's been ignored,” says Karen Cox, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and author of a book about the Daughters of the Confederacy.
“The more political power African Americans have gained, the more they've been able to question these symbols within their communities,” says Cox. “But it was really what happened in Charlottesville that turned this issue around”.
Major cities such as New Orleans and Baltimore removed all their statues commemorating the Confederate cause. But although dozens of monuments were eliminated, hundreds more remained.
Cox says there is no comprehensive list of such monuments that have been removed, but that the number is “almost negligible”. The Southern Poverty Law Center maintains a list of extant Confederate paraphernalia, but it also contains more easily removed artifacts like place-names and markers.
Now it looks as though the massive wave of anti-racism protests across the US this week have provoked another reckoning.
In addition to the removal of the Birmingham obelisk, the Daughters of the Confederacy voluntarily removed a statue known as the Confederate Soldier from Alexandria, Virginia. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who has delayed calls to remove the Rizzo statue since 2017, swiftly and quietly removed that statue overnight.
Still hundreds of such racially oppressive monuments will remain. It appears that the process of removing all such markers could last many years, each new conflagration resulting in the removal of another few dozen relics.
“You can just take down a flag, but monuments are entrenched firmly in place,” says Cox. “Until a community decides that it's got to go, they'll continue to be a cause of conflict”.
Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.