Last Thursday I attended a meeting in Centreville where a group of leaders were talking about events that are planned for Centreville & Brent in coming days. One group represented local government. In one group were several religious leaders planning a July 18 unity prayer event with a theme of “unity, not separation”. A BLM group was planning another voter registration drive for June 27. I will save names for later.
A quiet stillness came over the room when the topic shifted to a question about the future of the Confederate Monument that sits on the Court House square in Centreville. Every eye in the room became suddenly laser focused on the county administrator as he was suddenly and unceremoniously thrown the hot potato of the day. He immediately transformed into the county diplomat and left the response elsewhere, as it belongs.
As I sat there listening to comments I was struck by a single line of thought that came from one of our county leaders. I will name him later too. I will paraphrase his words. He said something like this:
The county court house is the only place where we can all go to get justice and expect to be treated fairly and equally at all times, in all cases, as all men are promised under the law and as all men should be treated. The confederate monument has been there for a long time and has served its purpose but it does bear racist language and we should not have to walk by it to enter the halls of justice.
I go in and out of the court house often. I have photographed the monument several times myself. I was immediately defensive when told the monument bears racist language. It is a symbol of the confederacy, true enough I thought, put there to honor the soldiers who fought and died and to remember the cause they fought for, but facially racist by modern standards; no way I thought. So I went to check for myself again.
And there it is. “No Nation Rose So White And Fair Or Fell So Pure of Crime“
This monument was placed in 1910. We should consider what was going on in our State in that contemporary time, almost 50 years after the Civil War ended.
So before all of the defenders of the Civil War, the Confederacy, and Lincoln haters start bombarding this Opinion I suggest you keep your powder dry and save your ammunition. The remainder of this Opinion, if you are still reading, is not about the Confederacy my friend, it is about the post-confederacy blunt and brutal history of Alabama.
Let us be honest about who we are and who we have been in our own lifetimes and the generations we feel closely connected to. What was happening in Alabama at the turn of the Twentieth Century relevant to equal justice for the black population of our state?
One resource worthy of consulting is the textbook Alabama: The Making of An American State published by the University of Alabama Press. The book describes how Alabama while becoming highly industrialized from 1875 to 1914 government leaders were enacting new laws for preserving white control and created a repressive and awkward system of racial separation known as segregation. No document made white supremacy in Alabama clearer than the State Constitution of 1901.
Maybe that is why the 1901 Constitution has now been amended more than 946 times.
The purpose of the 1901 Constitution was to replace the 1875 Constitution and to intentionally disenfranchise black voters. Don’t believe me? The convention kept a verbatim record of its deliberations. Here are the exact words from the President of the Constitutional Convention John Knox of Anniston:
“And what is it that we want to do? Why it is within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this State…But if we would have white supremacy, we must establish it by law..not by force or fraud.”
The new constitution established a cumulative poll tax system, preventing blacks and poor farmers from gaining access to the ballot box for many years to come.
Under the post civil war constitutions, a lawful system of convict leasing became pervasive and operated well into the twentieth century. Public officials, sometimes called Justices of the Peace, earned their salaries by arresting vagrants and blacks charged with petty crimes, and leasing them to private industries, such as coal mines and steel mills, to serve out their sentences.
The ugly history of convict leasing, and its connection to Bibb County, is well documented in a book written by Pulitzer Prize winning author Douglas Blackmon called Slavery By Another Name. If you want a shock to your system, take up this book. If you read it through you will never be the same again. That is a promise.
We all know the ugliest chapter of extra-judicial history in the State of Alabama is the history of the KKK and the history of mob lynching. One outstanding and shocking fact is highlighted in a 2015 study by the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit civil rights organization in Montgomery. They identified 326 recorded lynchings of African Americans in Alabama between 1877 and 1950.
I personally witnessed a parade of white clothed and hooded men march around the court house square and the sidewalks of Centreville in the late 1950’s and I never want to see that again.
I have had a connection to statewide politics since the gubernatorial race of 1958. My Dad was county campaign manager for George Wallace. I gave speeches at every Bibb County political rally for Lurleen Wallace in 1966. I know a lot about politics and politicians.
I have worked in the judicial system and seen its strengths and weaknesses under a microscope. My experience has shown me that both white & black absolutely must have faith in our legal system and our court houses as a means of accessing it.
I have pointed out only a couple of issues here. I could go on. But these issues highlighted are earthquakes in our own local history and they relate to the Bibb County Court House and the basic principle of Equal Justice for all men. We say that the fundamental principles of our society are based on Equal Justice for all. We must live by those words.
There is no argument with the Confederacy or its supporters. They have their time and place in history that cannot be erased. We have no time or energy to spend on confederate lineage and memorialization. We support you and your place in history, but no longer should you take your stand at the court house door.
So I ask you my friend and reader this simple truth:
Does the Bibb County Court House symbolize equal justice for all men?
Think it through. Give it considered thought before your self-answer. The question is not going away any time soon. We’ll just keep inching along.
Song reference above is from the book, "Inching Along; or, the Life and Works of an Alabama Farm Boy, an Autobiography, by DAVIDSON, HENRY DAMON", 1869-1955. Nashville; National Publication Company, 1944.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer and not necessarily those of the Bibb Voice or its Editorial Board. Your comments are welcomed.