Power  /  Explainer

Local Officials Want to Remove Confederate Monuments—but States Won't Let Them

Laws preventing the removal of statues raise questions not only about historical legacy but also about local control and public safety.
Police security guarding Confederate monument.
Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

Leaders in the city of Birmingham, Alabama, had long looked askance at the Confederate monument in Linn Park, a granite obelisk soaring more than 50 feet in the air near downtown. In a city with a bloody civil-rights history and a nearly 75 percent African American population, the memorial seemed like a provocation even before violent protests broke out in Charlottesville, Virginia, where leaders want to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee.

“With the condonement by the president of the activities that took place, or the moral equivalency of hate speech, we felt that things were beginning to get out of hand and that we needed to speak up and speak out against all the hate groups,” Mayor William Bell told me Friday. “We felt that the best thing for us to do was to end this controversy by covering up our monument so it would not be used as a focal point for any hate speech.”

Why didn’t they just have city workers haul the statue out, the way mayors in Baltimore and New Orleans did? The statue stands in a public municipal park, and the mayor and the city council agreed that the statue was both improper and a threat to public safety. But in May, the Alabama Legislature passed a law that bars the “relocation, removal, alteration, renaming, or other disturbance of any architecturally significant building, memorial building, memorial street, or monument located on public property which has been in place for 40 or more years.” That meant Bell couldn’t have it removed, and when the mayor decided to erect a barrier around the monument, blocking it from public view, the state attorney general promptly sued him and the city for violating the law.

Across the South, citizens are rising up and demanding that their towns and cities remove Confederate monuments. And in many of those cities, local officials are reckoning with the fact that they don’t actually have the power to do that. Alabama’s is the newest, but several states also have laws on the books that are designed to prevent the removal of Civil War memorials. In North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississippi, statues are protected by laws that preempt local governments from removing them. And the standoff in Charlottesville was catalyzed by a Virginia state law that prevented local authorities from removing the Lee statue, as they’d desired. (On Tuesday, workers draped a large black tarp over the statue.)