Thursday, June 2, 2011

Historic marker depicting Confederate flags causes controversy

A historical marker has been placed at the corner of Bibb and Commerce streets in downtown Montgomery. Confederate Cabinet offices were briefly housed at the site.A historical marker has been placed at the corner of Bibb and Commerce streets in downtown Montgomery. Confederate Cabinet offices were briefly housed at the site.
Montgomery, Al.-A historical marker now perched at the corner of Bibb and Commerce streets indicates all this and colorfully depicts the images of the various flags used by the Con­federacy. But it is the back of the marker that is agitating some in the community, just as it has in the past.
In fact, the marker has only been back up for a little more than two weeks, and someone has already covered the Confederate battle flag twice with black material and duck tape, causing damage to the paint­job.
Mayor Todd Strange said that is tantamount to defacing public prop­erty.
The granite marker recognizes the historical importance of the site, but it's the flag marker that "tells the story," Strange said. And while that story may cause discomfort for some, Strange said there are other signs that make him squeamish. For example, Strange said it is the Mont­gomery Slave Markets sign in Court Square that makes him uneasy.
Even so, just as the Confederate government is a part of Montgom­ery's past, so are the slave markets in downtown, where humans were auctioned off alongside cattle.
"It's a fact of history. If people are in Montgomery, they want to see things," Strange said Wednesday.
The flag marker is different from a typical historical marker in that it is larger and includes color images. Whereas the front displays six different flag designs and the "great seal" of the Confederacy, the back prominently and singly portrays and pays homage to the Battle Flag of the Confederacy, an image that has spurred controver­sy for years when displayed public­ly.
The sign, which was stored in the interim on the city's lot on North Ripley Street, has returned and is close to its original spot now that city officials have agreed to fulfill a promise that Confederate history advocates say the city made several years ago
The marker and a stone monu­ment recognizing the site's histori­cal significance were removed in 2005 because of the construction of the Renaissance Montgomery Ho­tel & Spa at the Convention Center, which now has been open for more than three years. They remained in storage, along with several other markers, until the city re-erected them recently in a downtown where revitalization has since firm­ly taken hold.John Napier, a local historian who was instrumental in the mark­er's original placement decades ago, said initially the "educational side" of the marker faced Court Square and the side with the Con­federate battle flag faced the Ala­bama River.
But back then, the marker was in plain sight. That end of the block was a parking lot in front of what was then the civic center, and the marker and granite monument sat on a grass area just outside the as­phalt.
Today, the granite monument is visibly displayed on the Bibb Street side near Wintzell's Oyster House, where the monument was even clearly factored into the landscap­ing. The flag marker, however, is tucked away in the shade of a small tree with the back of the marker out of the view of the casual pass­erby, making it unlikely that this side of the marker will find much of an audience.
But will the brightly colored images, and all that they represent, help or hurt tourism and the mo­mentum that has been steadily building in downtown?

Commemoration or celebration?

When Richard Bailey, a local historian who is black, sees the marker bearing the Confederate flags, he sees more than the recog­nition of Montgomery's history. He sees a celebration of the city's past, for him a dark past that makes the celebratory tone offensive to those who have been historically op­pressed.
As someone who has written the text for historical markers in Montgomery, such as the Mont­gomery's Slave Markets and First Emancipation Observance marker at Court Square, Bailey questioned the presentation of this marker's information. From his perspective, he said the marker seems to push an agenda.
"Nothing has changed in Mont­gomery, Alabama, if you are saying you wish for a return to 1861," Bai­ley said, standing next to the mark­er.Such a marker has a place at the location, he said, but the city should "de-politicize it" and not have a marker that he believes glo­rifies the Confederacy.
The Sons of Confederate Veter­ans presented the sign to the city in 1961 in celebration of the centenni­al anniversary of the Civil War, but it wasn't publicly displayed until 1979.
George Gayle, who is a mem­ber of the Sons of Confederate Vet­erans' Cradle of the Confederacy Camp, noted that the war was 150 years ago and that for the first 100 years after, it was the city's Civil War history that mostly brought tourists into Montgomery. He be­lieves the histories of the Civil War and civil rights can peacefully co­exist in Montgomery today.
"The city has made lots of mon­ey on tourism and really, we want to keep the Civil War people com­ing back to Montgomery," Gayle said.
Beyond that, Gayle said he has trouble understanding why the marker would be offensive to any­one. He believes the sensitivity to the battle flag is born out of misun­derstanding over what the Confed­eracy represented.
For one, Gayle argues that the Confederacy was not fighting to protect the practice of owning slaves, noting that the Emancipa­tion Proclamation was not signed until 1863.
"What were they fighting about those first two years," Gayle asked rhetorically.
The marker stands in the gen­eral area where a three-story build­ing, which had an open courtyard in the middle, briefly housed the Confederate cabinet offices. Since a large fire destroyed the building in the 1920s and the entire block was made over, the flag marker and granite marker are the only vestiges of the site's past signifi­cance.
It is not the granite marker, but the image of the Confederate flag that has incensed one Alabama law­maker who is waging his own war to have the flag marker removed.
Rep. Alvin Holmes, a black leg­islator from Montgomery, said he intends to use every public forum available to him to ask Mayor Todd Strange to take the sign back down.
"It's a symbol of hate," Holmes said. "It's a part of their history of owning my fore-parents and having them in slavery and bondage; the part of history that represents black people is slavery; the part of history that represents (white peo­ple) as slave owners."Holmes said he plans to relent­lessly pursue the issue until the marker disappears.
"The issue's not going to go away as long as that Confederate flag is up there on city property. It's going to hurt the recruiting in­dustry here because when various organizations find out that the blacks of Montgomery, Alabama, are in an uproar over the city put­ting a Confederate flag on city property, it's going to hurt."
For some, it's the very image of the Confederate battle flag, which has become associated with hate groups, that disturbs them. For oth­ers, it's the presentation of the image that unsettles them.
Above the image are mournful, reverent words that make refer­ence to Confederate President Jef­ferson Davis.
"A century has passed -- the flag is furled -- /The sword is sheathed, the bugle stilled, and yet /A people's heart bows to the mem­ory /Of when the man and his great hour met."
As director of the Rosa L. Parks Library and Museum, Georgette Norman represents the other major American movement for which Montgomery has become internationally known. It's not the image of the flag that so much bothered her -- after all, it was an integral part of the Confederacy -- but the words that gave her pause.
Specifically, it's the phrase "A people's heart" that she questioned.

Proud of heritage

But as is often the case with symbols, part of the issue is that the marker carries different mean­ings for different people. For Gay­le, it's about his heritage and the personal sacrifices of his ancestors.
Gayle, who is 84 years old, is a grandson of two Confederate veter­ans and a member of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, Cradle of the Confederacy Camp.
He feels just as strongly about the marker being publicly dis­played as others feel about it being taken down.
"If you want to forget one part of your history, you might as well forget all of your history. People who believe in their heritage and that of their parents and grandpar­ents and forefathers, you just don't forget it," Gayle said.

Not a new controversy

This is not the first time the flag marker's presence on public property has met opposition in the community. In 2005, City Council­man James Nuckles sponsored a resolution that would have re­moved "the Confederate flag" from the site. The resolution recom­mended the First White House of the Confederacy as an alternative location.
The resolution cited several reasons for the move:

  • The site was about to be renovated in hopes of attracting more tourism and conventions, and the Confederate flag is "very divisive and has a negative im­pact on the economic growth of the city of Montgomery and the state of Alabama."

  • Many places have banned the public display of the Confederate flag.

  • The Confederate flag represents slavery and oppres­sion of blacks.

  • The Confederate States of America attempted to over­throw the U.S. government, with Davis ultimately charged with treason and sedition.

  • The Confederate flag is the official flag of hate groups, like the Ku Klux Klan.One reason on the resolution states very plainly: "The Civil War is over, and we are now one nation."
    The resolution failed with a 2-to-7 vote, with only Nuckles and the late Councilman Willie Cook voting in favor of it. Cur­rent council members Jim Spear, C.C. Calhoun, Glen Pruitt and Charles Jinright all voted against it. Martha Roby, who is now a U.S. representative, also voted against the resolution.
    Strange said recently that the marker's placement and fate was a City Council issue, but he did form a committee of historians to review the matter. Jinright, who coordinated with the com­mittee, pointed to the council's 2005 vote as the council's official stance on the issue.
    When asked if the city was at­tempting to hide the marker, Strange said the location was se­lected because it was really the only workable spot. The city also explored the possibility of put­ting the marker at the First White House of the Confederacy near the Capitol, but that option was ruled out because the mark­er is site-specific.
    Mary Ann Neeley, a local histo­rian who is white, served on the committee that considered the placement of the marker. Although Neeley acknowledged that the deci­sion to return the marker to its general location did not please ev­eryone, she said she thought it was the most appropriate outcome."If you're going to have a his­toric community, you need to stick as closely as possible to representa­tion," Neeley said.
    Neeley said it is her hope that the marker, like others in town, will make people curious about other facets of history and want to ex­plore it in a way that it becomes real for them.
    "It's about humanity. It's look­ing at all aspects of life," Neeley said.
    Certainly the Civil War played a large role in Montgomery's histo­ry.
    Although Montgomery was the capital of the Confederate States of America for only a few short months, the events that took place in that brief window are significant moments in Southern history.
    Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president here, resulting in the inaugural ball that was held in a building on Dexter Avenue and his public inaugural address that was delivered on the block where the marker has been re-erected. A pa­rade down Dexter Avenue cele­brated the inauguration.


    Those interested in these signal moments in history, whether it is the Civil War or the civil rights movement, want to know exactly where something happened. So in that way, the flag marker whets the appetite of tourists who want to get as close to history as possible, according to Alabama Tourism Di­rector Lee Sentell.
    Civil War history is a major tourism draw for Alabama. Al­though it is difficult to discern how many people actually visit the state each year because of its Civil War history, Sentell said his agency's Civil War brochure is the second most popular publication. (The most popular is the "100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die" brochure.)
    "People go to historic sites to help them understand a specific in­cident in history ... When people visit a location, it helps them to un­derstand or put themselves back in time if they know they are standing where an incident took place," Sen­tell said.

  • For example, a memorable spot in Montgomery tends to be where Davis stood when he was sworn in, Sentell said. The spot at the state Capitol is clearly marked with a gold star.But not only is this true for Civ­il War sites in Montgomery, but it is just as true for civil rights and other sites. As an example, Sentell said people also want to know ex­actly where Rosa Parks got on the bus and where she was arrested.
    "To me, history is more power­ful when you feel like you are standing on a place that is hallowed ground to a certain segment of the population," Sentell said. "History happened where it happened."

    History should be remembered

    Anne Tidmore, who is a regent for the First White House of the Confederacy, says that is what the flag marker is about -- remember­ing and preserving history.
    "We don't celebrate 620,000 people getting killed. But we do commemorate it. History is histo­ry. You don't sweep it under the rug," Tidmore said. "It's just a very unfortunate part of our history, but the good part is we did come back together as a nation in the end. That doesn't always happen."
    Napier noted that there are oth­er places and museums in Mont­gomery that conjure up events that are unpleasant and that no one is celebrating. Specifically, he refer­enced the Freedom Riders Muse­um that recently opened showcas­ing an event in history where an angry white mob ruthlessly beat an interracial group of people who were testing a desegregation order for buses.
    "People are always going to take offense at something. Some of them make a practice of it," Napier said. "There are markers here and elsewhere that I don't particularly like, but I accept the right of them to go up on public property. I don't believe that you rewrite history. You take it as it is -- the good, the bad and the ugly."

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