Here in the Heart of Dixie, like anywhere, history doesn’t exist in a vacuum. But for Alabamians, in particular, our history has become a part of who we are. Instead of stowing away our past, we often put it on a pedestal for all to see, and that’s to be expected.
Alabama’s political and social elite are heirs of not just pride, though. They’re heirs of prejudice, too, and that’s something we should all work to recognize. So when it comes to “protecting” the past with bills like the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, for example, lawmakers in Montgomery are pedestal-pushing: prioritizing positive political sentiment for a bygone era over the personal realities and the complicated context of the past.
Instead of, as is proposed, immortalizing the state’s infamous past without a hint of modern-day nuance, lawmakers should aim to provide a holistic picture of what the state’s monuments and memorials mean to its citizens — and if they don’t, Alabamians should do it for them. It’s a call for context, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask.
You can see this delusional dynamic best in Montgomery proper. Feet from where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “How long, not long” speech after the famous Selma to Montgomery march is a star on the marble steps leading up to the capitol. The star doesn’t mark King’s speech. There is no recognition of King at all in the capitol, although you can see his church, Dexter Avenue Baptist, from its entrance.
Instead, the star on the capitol steps marks another, very different event: the swearing-in of Jefferson Davis as the president of the Confederacy. As a city that bills itself as not just the “Cradle of the Confederacy” but also the “Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement,” Montgomery should commit to providing that context for its citizens, its visitors and its posterity, but it doesn’t. And that’s hardly the only example.
If you finish climbing the marble steps to the capitol from the Davis star, you can’t miss his statue, which towers over Goat Hill, glaring down Dexter Avenue at King’s sanctuary, and even further to the circle at Dexter and Court, where Rosa Parks boarded the bus that would change American history. Across from the Davis statue, also facing down Dexter Avenue, placed just in front of the capitol, is another sculpture, this one of J. Marion Sims, the so-called “father of gynecology.”
Sims performed surgeries on explicitly unwilling, enslaved African-American women in Montgomery to experiment with new gynecological techniques. According to a peer-reviewed journal article about Sims written by Sara Spettel and Mark Donald White, “… he is a prime example of progress in the medical profession made at the expense of a vulnerable population.”
Sims, glorified in stone at our state’s seat of power, is also one of the main subjects of historian Harriet Washington’s award-winning book “Medical Apartheid,” in which she describes Sims’ methods at length:
“Each surgical scene was a violent struggle between the slaves and physicians and each woman’s body was a bloodied battleground. Each naked, unanaesthetized slave woman had to be forcibly restrained by the other physicians through her shrieks of agony as Sims determinedly sliced, then sutured her genitalia.”
A New York Times columnist has called for there to be statues of Sims’ documented “patients” — Anarcha, Lucey and Betsey, the mothers of gynecology — erected next to Sims. That would be amazing, but far too much to hope for. At least some of the relevant context, though, even on a plaque, would be helpful.
Across the street, also a stone’s throw from Dexter Avenue Baptist, is another contextless monument not really worth celebrating, particularly without a serious sense of its impact and place in history: the first White House of the Confederacy.
According to a recent Associated Press report, the thousands of Alabama fourth graders, who thankfully also visit other, more reality-oriented sites on their field trips to the state’s capital, can learn in their stop at the now-museum that Jefferson Davis was part of a “heroic resistance” and was “held by his Negroes in genuine affection as well as highest esteem.” Not exactly the historical context I’d hope for.
Asked why slavery is not a prominent part of the museum’s exhibits, Gibbs Davis, who is affiliated with the nonprofit that runs the first White House of the Confederacy, said of the visiting children: “They just know it.”
Back across the street at the capitol complex, on the other side of the state’s center of political power, is an 88-foot-tall Confederate memorial, the cornerstone of which was laid by Davis himself. Nowhere, though, is there a disclaimer: Jefferson Davis, like other Southern leaders at the time, advocated for the abandonment of confederate symbolism and memorial.
“My pride,” Davis wrote, for example, in his 1881 book “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government,” “is that that [Confederate] flag shall not set between contending brothers; and that, when it shall no longer be the common flag of the country, it shall be folded up and laid away like a vesture no longer used.”
The proposed Alabama Memorial Preservation Act doesn’t deal with flags, but I think even when it comes to memorials and monuments Davis would agree: context is key.
As of press time, the legislation — which would require court or committee approval for the removal any monument or memorial more than 20 years old — has passed both the House and the Senate in different forms. A conference committee has been appointed to hammer out the differences, but the legislative clock is ticking.