It remains astounding the types of issues the Alabama legislature will take on with ferocious seriousness while the state languishes in financial woe. Last week Morris Dees, founder of the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center, wrote a scathing editorial on the proposed Alabama Heritage Preservation Act.
The bill employs the state’s new favorite past time–preventing local jurisdictions from exercising any form of home rule–by preventing local governments from removing or renaming Confederate icons without first obtaining approval from a special legislative committee. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center there are over 1,500 publicly-maintained Confederate symbols in the U.S. and over 100 in Alabama. Dees writes:
Many of these symbols were installed during the civil rights movement as a show of white resistance to the movement that would end more than seven decades of Jim Crow segregation.
In Montgomery, for example, we have public high schools named for Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. They were built in 1955 and 1968, respectively – dates that almost perfectly bookend the era of the modern civil rights movement between the Brown v. Board school desegregation decision and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Much like Gov. George Wallace’s decision to raise the Confederate battle flag over the Capitol in 1963, the naming of Jefferson Davis High School in particular was an ugly message of defiance to African Americans and to the federal government.
The student population at Jefferson Davis High School is 90% black.
This is not a fight we should be having in 2016, but alas this is Alabama. The bill has already passed the Senate where it was introduced by Gerald Allen (R-21) and supported by 21 of his Republican colleagues as well as Democrat Billy Beasley. The remaining Democrats and 4 Republicans opposed the bill. The bill has been introduced in the House by Paul Beckman (R-88) where it sits in committee.
The really egregious thing about legislators in both parties openly supporting the preservation of Confederate symbols that actively seek to romanticize the state’s history of racial oppression is that many–such as Beckman–were completely unopposed in their run for office. Only 43% of Alabama’s legislative candidates had a challenger in the 2014 general election. And that’s low even by Alabama standards where an average of 53% of races were competitive from 2001 to 2012.
We have to do better than this. Politicians cannot be allowed to enshrine a legacy of hatred and racial violence without consequence, but to some degree the people of Alabama are responsible. If we want to change this state for the better, more people who want to advance a social justice agenda will have to start running for office. This is challenging to be sure, but the politicians we have aren’t going to change any other way.