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In Birmingham, The Debate Over Confederate Monuments Is Renewed After Charlottesville

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

President Trump offered some thoughts today on Confederate monuments. He tweeted this. Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. Since the violence in Charlottesville, some cities have removed their Confederate statues. Birmingham, Ala., has covered up a monument. Esther Ciammachilli from member station WBHM reports.

ESTHER CIAMMACHILLI, BYLINE: Earlier this year, the Alabama Legislature passed a law preventing any local government from removing, relocating or altering any historical monument. This came after a wave of southern cities began to take down Confederate statues following the racially motivated killings at a Charleston, S.C., church in 2015. Birmingham has long wrestled with how to portray its past. In the 1950s and '60s, some of the bloodiest events of the civil rights era happened here. This week, the city's mayor, William Bell, ordered a Civil War monument to be covered up.

WILLIAM BELL: It's a monument to segregation. It's a monument to human bondage. It's a monument to sedition and the breakup of the United States of America.

CIAMMACHILLI: The base of the memorial is now wrapped by a plywood barrier to hide the inscription honoring Confederate soldiers and sailors. Birmingham resident Mark Davis was sitting next to the memorial in Linn Park. He says it should have been removed a long time ago in a respectful way.

MARK DAVIS: Seems like people wanted to take offense at, you know, the heritage and all that thing. But I think this is a whole different question now.

CIAMMACHILLI: LaJoya Sanders and Tonya Jackson were strolling by. They say race is complicated in the South.

TONYA JACKSON: Yeah, we don't see no color. Like, people look at us like we're crazy because I'm white, and she's black, and we're walking together.

LAJOYA SANDERS: And we can't...

JACKSON: We don't see no colors.

SANDERS: ...Move forward as a community, state, city, United States, nothing because of racism. They keep trying to hold us back...

JACKSON: Yep.

SANDERS: ...In the past, but they saying, let's move on. Why hold onto the past?

JACKSON: Can't live in the future living in the past.

SANDERS: Yeah.

CIAMMACHILLI: But this week, Alabama's attorney general, Steve Marshall, sued the city of Birmingham for covering up the Civil War monument. Today, speaking to reporters, he said it's not about living in the future or the past. It's that the mayor broke the law.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE MARSHALL: This has nothing to do with the Confederacy, nothing to do with the long-term history of this particular monument itself.

CIAMMACHILLI: The private group United Daughters of the Confederacy paid for the monument in 1905. Mayor Bell says he'd like to see the monument moved to a museum where it can be displayed with perspective and context.

BELL: But not give it a place of prominence as something for us to be proud of or waving over someone's head that, oh, we wish the good old days were here when people of my race were subjugated to Jim Crow laws.

CIAMMACHILLI: Bell says this statue has no place in a public park, especially for a city whose majority population is African-American. The mayor welcomes the lawsuit and says it should be up to the city, not the state, to decide how to honor and remember its racial past. For NPR News, I'm Esther Ciammachilli in Birmingham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.