Monday, August 14, 2017

Town thought it had put racial conflict behind it; then an accident took out a Confederate statue

The Demopolis monument in 2013
The protests and violence in Charlottesville, Va., sparked by the City Council's decision to move a Robert E. Lee statue from a city park, have brought into sharp focus an increasingly contentious issue in Southern cities and towns: what to do with Confederate monuments. The town of Demopolis, Ala., has grappled with an unusual variant of that question. After a police officer accidentally crashed into the local Confederate statue and knocked it over, locals had to decide whether to put it back up. David Montgomery's Washington Post story about the Demopolis statue is a long read, but provides an excellent look at a town of 7,500 people who thought they had put issues about race behind them—until the crash put it back in front of them.

Demopolis defies easy stereotypes. It's not an integrated utopia—whites and African Americans generally live on opposite sides of town, and Mayor John Laney acknowledges that "We’ve got a city of 7,800, but it’s essentially two cities of 3,900 because the demographics is such that we don’t work together. We need to do things to change that." But the police chief is African American and oversees a racially balanced police force, the fire chief and building inspector are African American, and the first African American district attorney in Alabama history was a lawyer in Demopolis. And the townspeople are proud of the progress they've made in integrating their town. "Residents take pride in the fact that, during school desegregation in the middle of the 20th century, Demopolis distinguished itself from many of its Black Belt neighbors," Montgomery reports, using the regional term that first referred to the soil but now more to the people. "Black children and white children were funneled into the same schools, and the habit took. True, an all-white private academy cropped up, but it didn’t last, unlike in other towns where private schools still drain the public schools of white children. Today, Demopolis High School’s student body is roughly as balanced as the population of the town."

Copyright map by Sperling's Best Places
So when the Demopolis monument was knocked down in July 2016, residents worried that the debate over its fate would destroy the town's hard-fought progress. "The last thing I wanted to happen was Demopolis to become a battleground between the Sons [of Confederate Veterans] and the Daughters of the Confederacy and the Black Lives movement," said Mike Grayson, who was the mayor at the time of the crash. "We had worked too hard for too many years." He named a committee of six local civic and business leaders, half white and half black, to study whether the statue should be restored.

The public discourse in Demopolis is remarkable for its politeness; neighbors seem to want to preserve the peace, and listened to differing viewpoints calmly when the issue was discussed in a city council meeting in January. "As strong as the convictions were on both sides, they were expressed in a tone of mutual respect," Montgomery reports. But still, some residents were surprised by their neighbors' viewpoints on the statue. As in other communities, some white residents wanted the statue restored because they believe it has historical value. Phillip Spence told Montgomery that the statue "is not anything that glorifies slavery. It’s just to remember people who died. You always want to remember your ancestors."

But "to hear white people wax eloquent about the old soldier was a stunning revelation for their black neighbors," Montgomery writes. Former civil rights activist Annye Braxton told him that, to her, the statue means bigotry. "If we are the City of the People, it represents an exclusion of my people. And if we are the City of the People, I think we should be included in the monument. Put Dr. King up there. Put President Obama up there, along with your Confederate soldier." African American barber Reginald Gracie bemoaned the fact that the accident brought the whole issue to the forefront. "You find out the spirit that flows through that monument is still flowing through these people today. All these years you say this should be a model city as far as race relations are concerned, but you want to erect the one thing that keeps us divided?"

African Americans' feelings about the statue surprised many of their white neighbors. Kirk Booker, the white operations director of the Marengo County Historical Society, said the revelation was "a little eye-opening." Some white residents couldn't understand why their African American neighbors had never spoken up before if they disliked the monument. Black city council member Charles Jones Jr. said white citizens are learning that "there are some things that we suppressed," and that suppression was one reason Demopolis is able to function as a town where people of different races get along, at least on the surface.

A group that spent the night in an old slave cabin and some
friends made a foot circle during a next-day visit to the Safe
House Black History Museum in nearby Greensboro, Ala.
But residents are still trying to find their way. "I don’t know what it is about this town, but at the end of the day, we try to make it happen, make it work," Jones told Montgomery. "Yeah, there’s still some socioeconomic oppression going on, but at the end of the day, in this town we try to get along. . . . We’ve seen the all-white town, we’ve seen the all-black town, and we don’t like either of those. We like our 50-50 mix."

The issue remains unresolved. The statue is considered to be beyond repair. In April, the council voted to replace it with an obelisk honoring the dead in all wars. But in May 2017, Alabama passed a law forbidding the altering of any public monuments older than 39 years (a law that arguably seeks to specifically preserve Confederate monuments). Some residents said that the law means the statue should be replaced, but others said the law does not apply to a statue that was knocked down before the law passed. The council asked—and is still waiting for—an opinion from state Attorney General Steve Marshall, a Republican appointed early this year.
The monument today (Washington Post photo, and above, by Jahi Chikwendiu)

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