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Death threats and the KKK: Inside a Black Alabaman's fight to remove a Confederate statue

WorldMay 28, 2021 07:27PM ET
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6/6 © Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Camille Bennett poses for a photo in front of the confederate statue that she is trying to have moved to the confederate cemetery in Florence, Alabama, U.S., May 19, 2021. REUTERS/Lawrence Bryant 2/6

(The second paragraph contains language that may offend some readers)

By Tim Reid

(Reuters) - Ever since Camille Bennett started her campaign to relocate a Confederate statue from outside the county courthouse in her hometown of Florence, Alabama, she has seen it all: threats, violent online messages and intimidation attempts.

There was the suggestion from a white pastor that somebody wire her mouth shut; then there was the time a white motorcyclist sped towards her and two boys during a racial justice march last summer, telling her to "get the fuck out the way."

Bennett has always received pushback for her activism in her small conservative community, but she says her most harrowing experience happened in 2017, when five Ku Klux Klansmen (KKK) in hoods and robes heckled her at a local park during a LGBT Pride event she'd been asked to address.

"I was terrified. I was extremely intimidated," said Bennett, the only Black speaker at the park event. But, she added, "the work brings me an immense sense of joy. I don't let the threats define me."

Lori Feldman, 42, a white woman who supports the removal of the statue honoring soldiers of the pro-slavery Confederacy and moved to Alabama in 2017 from Brooklyn, New York, was present when Klansmen heckled Bennett at a park.

"It was clear they wanted to make a statement of hate," Feldman said of the KKK, a white supremacist group that has terrorized Black communities for over a century. "There were kids who were crying, who were scared."

But intimidation isn't the only obstacle for those committed to removing Confederate symbols. Bennett, like many other Black civil rights advocates and their allies, continues to face legal and political roadblocks at the state, county and city level.

"MY PEOPLE SUFFERED"

Bennett, 43, whose mother is a minister and who is a minister herself, founded the nonprofit Project Say Something in 2014 to push for racial justice for Black Americans.

One of its core missions has been to get Florence to confront the meaning of Eternal Vigil, the ghostly white marble statue of a nameless Confederate private in front of Lauderdale county's courthouse.

During the Civil War of the 1860s, Southern states in the Confederacy fought the North to preserve their economy based on chattel slavery of captive Africans and their descendants born in America.

Over 300 monuments to the Confederacy stand in America, mostly in the South, especially in Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Tennessee, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group.

Many Confederate monuments were erected well after the war - Florence's statue was completed in 1903 - after Reconstruction when white Southern segregationists were working to reverse Black political and economic gains. The monuments have long been symbolic for white supremacists like the KKK, which was founded by Confederate veterans.

The county turned down a proposal by Bennett to erect next to the monument a statue of Dred Scott, who lived in Florence for 10 years in the 1800s and whose effort as an enslaved man to gain freedom led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling. After her proposal was rejected, Bennett called for relocating Eternal Vigil to a Confederate cemetery less than a mile from the courthouse.

But the Lauderdale County Commission's five members, all white Republican men, refused, citing a 2017 state law prohibiting the removal or relocation of monuments.

That law is part of a larger effort by GOP lawmakers in several states, including Georgia and West Virginia, to prevent the removal of statues following a nationwide movement to topple Confederate monuments. The Republican-backed bill passed in the Alabama legislature despite the opposition of legislators, such as Thomas Jackson of Thomasville, a Black Democrat who spoke of what Confederate statues symbolize for Black Americans.

"My people suffered," Jackson said during debate on the proposal. "Don't bring back those harsh memories that we went through so much to overcome."

Josh Dodd, who is white and chairman of the Lauderdale County Republican Party, is opposed to moving Eternal Vigil. "It's very important to a lot of people to remember the past and to remember those who died on both sides," he said.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy, which funded Florence's statue at the turn of the 20th century, says it adamantly rejects removal.

The group advocates "that all such monuments remain in their original location with their original messaging," its attorney, Jack Hinton, wrote in a letter to an Alabama state senator last year.

The original messaging around Eternal Vigil, as demonstrated by one initial 1903 speech at its unveiling, was explicitly against social equality https://msnha.oncell.com/en/confederate-monument-190334.html for Black people in the South.

"OBSTACLES KEEP CHANGING"

Amid nationwide protests against racism following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minnesota in May 2020, the movement to take down Confederate symbols accelerated. In 2020, over 160 Confederate monuments were taken down, compared to 58 between 2015 and 2019, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Bennett and supporters - Black and white - began marching in central Florence last summer to demand the relocation of Eternal Vigil after Floyd's murder. In July 2020, three Lauderdale County residents filed suit, demanding that the statue remain in place. Their suit calls the statue an "historic and irreplaceable monument."

In October 2020, Florence City Council unanimously passed a resolution backing the relocation of the statue to the cemetery, citing "concerned citizens" who want it relocated and the fact that some residents have agreed to pay the costs of removal. The city built a concrete base in the cemetery for the statue.

But because the statue sits on county property, the city asked the county for permission to remove it.

Danny Pettus, who is white and chairs the county commission, told Reuters he would never support the statue's relocation, citing the 2017 state monument preservation law. Violating the law could result in a $25,000 fine.

Andy Betterton was elected mayor of Florence in November 2020 on a promise to relocate the statue. But now Betterton and members of the county commission say their hands are tied because of the civil lawsuit. The suit is now with a circuit court judge, who has ordered a stay on all actions involving the statue until the litigation is resolved.

Betterton declined to be interviewed by Reuters. In a statement he said the lawsuit has constrained him, but added: "The removal and relocation of the statue is definitely one of my priorities, and I feel optimistic that we will see it removed."

For Bennett the delays feel like obstruction. "There have been several obstacles, and the obstacles keep changing. So you're going to be suspicious that everyone is working together so this monument is not removed," she said.

But she added: "One way or another, we will prevail. We will not stop."

Death threats and the KKK: Inside a Black Alabaman's fight to remove a Confederate statue
 

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Casey Connor
Casey Connor May 28, 2021 7:38PM ET
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The confederacy wasnt fighting for slavery. They were fighting for states right.
 
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