In Birmingham, A Debate Over Confederate Monuments

In Birmingham, A Debate Over Confederate Monuments

2:17pm Jul 15, 2015

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Before last month's church shooting in Charleston, S.C., which left nine African-Americans dead, the suspect posed in pictures with the Confederate battle flag. On Friday, South Carolina removed the battle flag from its Statehouse grounds, and now other cities across the South are re-examining the way they honor that and other symbols of the Confederacy. From member station WBHM in Birmingham, Rachel Lindley reports.

RACHEL LINDLEY, BYLINE: On a sunny, Alabama morning, the 90-degree heat doesn't stop Cynthia Alexander from taking a brisk walk.

CYNTHIA ALEXANDER: Yeah, I walk. I do a lot of walking 'cause it's good for my health.

LINDLEY: One of her favorite routes is past Linn Park in downtown Birmingham. City hall and the county courthouse look out onto it. And at the entrance to the park stands a 52-foot-tall obelisk-style statue. What is it?

ALEXANDER: I really don't know, but it looks like it's been there for a while.

LINDLEY: Alexander says she hadn't thought about it before.

ALEXANDER: Obviously, the pigeons love it - they on it.

LINDLEY: The pigeons are on a Confederate soldiers and sailors monument, and it has been here for a while - 110 years. Alexander's not alone in overlooking it. Unlike the distinct stars and bars, Confederate monuments come in all shapes and sizes, an often overlooked part of Southern scenery, but not to everyone.

FRANK MATTHEWS: That monument needs to go.

LINDLEY: Frank Matthews has tried to get Birmingham's monument removed for years. He says it's a powerful symbol of hate.

MATTHEWS: A picture says a thousand words, so a monument's a million words.

LINDLEY: Birmingham's Parks and Recreation Board asked the city's lawyers if there are any legal issues involved in removing the monument. Other cities are making similar moves, from New Orleans to Memphis to Austin. Matthews is glad the cause is getting traction.

MATTHEWS: The trunk of embedded racism in the Confederacy is epitomized in those 100-year-old statues.

LINDLEY: But it's not as easy as lowering a flag. Birmingham says they'd consider giving the monument to a Southern heritage group if they'd pay relocation costs, though some don't see them as racist symbols or think it's silly to spend time and money moving them. Nell Clay works in downtown Birmingham.

NELL CLAY: It's history, and it's history for our children, you know, black and white. I'm not offended by it in any way. It's just a part of this park.

LINDLEY: Birmingham City Council President Jonathan Austin says, yes, Confederate monuments reflect history, but...

JONATHAN AUSTIN: It was a different time politically, socially, and there is no place for those or any of those type of monuments in our society other than in museums.

LINDLEY: Austin says it's important for people in power to re-examine Confederate imagery in public spaces, especially in a place like Birmingham. Just a few blocks away is Kelly Ingram Park where police blasted peaceful protesters with fire hoses during the civil rights movement. The park is home to a different kind of monument - one honoring four girls killed when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. Like Charleston, that tragedy brought racial hatred and violence to the forefront of national conversation. Though today, many say that doesn't go deep enough. Ahmad Ward is with the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

MICHAEL WARD: It's much easier to discuss taking down a monument than it is to talk about institutionalized racism.

LINDLEY: While the institute hasn't taken a stand on Confederate monuments, Ward says people should talk about how racism still shapes the nation.

WARD: That goes to the heart of things we don't really want to touch. That makes us second-guess what we stand for as an ideal for American society. And that makes people uncomfortable.

LINDLEY: More uncomfortable than any statue. In Linn Park, Cynthia Alexander sits a few feet from the Confederate monument, resting up for the second half of her walk. She shrugs.

ALEXANDER: It's not that I don't care about it. It's just that it's just been there, you know, for a long time. It's not broke. Why should you try to fix it?

LINDLEY: The question facing many communities across the Deep South right now. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Lindley in Birmingham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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