On June 24, 2015, Alabama officials removed a Confederate flag flying on the grounds of the state capitol in Montgomery. The move came in response to national scrutiny of Confederate symbols on public property, triggered by a tragic shooting at a South Carolina church that left nine black people dead at the hand of a white supremacist who embraced Confederate iconography as a symbol of hatred.
Three days after the flag was removed from the Alabama Capitol, a predominately-white crowd of hundreds gathered on the capitol grounds in protest. Many wore or waved Confederate flags and other related images, and held signs proclaiming slogans like, “Southern Lives Matter!” The protesters insisted that the flag’s removal constituted a cultural genocide and erasure of their heritage.
The Confederacy was defeated by Union forces in 1865, ending a Civil War waged to preserve slavery. Much of the Southern – and then national – retelling of the history of the Civil War and the Confederacy took place through monuments and the organizations that formed to erect them. Around the turn of the 20th century, white Southerners installed monuments to the Confederacy across the South as part of a concerted effort to redeem their defeat and build cultural support for the re-establishment of white supremacy.
Confederate symbols and monuments gained renewed prominence in the mid-twentieth century, supporters of white supremacy felt increasingly threatened by the growing civil rights movement. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, scores of new Confederate monuments were added to the Southern landscape, many in direct response to federal desegregation efforts. In 1955, one year after the Supreme Court struck down segregated public schools in Brown v. Board of Education, a bronze figure of Robert E. Lee was installed in front of then all-white Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery, Alabama. A few months later, in its own act of defiance, the state of Georgia redesigned its state flag to include the Confederate battle flag. This is the modern heritage of Confederate iconography.
Many Southern states continue to glorify these symbols of resistance to racial equality and resist efforts to honestly reflect on their origins. In recent years, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia have passed “heritage” laws to shield Confederate monuments from growing public pressure to remove or relocate them.
Though Alabama has not reinstalled the Confederate flag removed from the capitol in 2015, an eighty-eight-foot-tall Confederate Monument remains prominently displayed on the Capitol grounds. The Monument includes an inscription that honors “the knightliest of the knightly race…” Currently, at least fifty-nine markers documenting Confederate history are visible throughout the city of Montgomery. Statewide, Alabama is home to at least one-hundred Confederate monuments. At least twenty-five percent of Confederate monuments at Alabama courthouses were erected within the last thirty years.