Alabama’s attorney general almost certainly does not believe Alabama is at risk of descending into anarchy, but that has not stopped him from resorting to overheated rhetoric just because some local government officials are listening to their constituents rather than to the state Legislature.
“Around the country, we have seen what happens when city and county officials allow the mob to take over,” Attorney General Steve Marshall said in a statement recently, in which he announced a lawsuit against Madison County for moving a Confederate monument from its courthouse grounds to a more appropriate site in Huntsville’s Maple Hill Cemetery, where Confederate soldiers are buried.
“It all starts with subtle non-enforcement of laws and ordinances, and quickly devolves into utter lawlessness,” Marshall continued. “As a state, we must remain vigilant that those elected to govern our localities do not lead us slowly down the same road.”
The message was not at all subtle: If local governments follow the lead of Birmingham, Mobile and Madison County and move their monuments to the Confederacy to other locations, or even hide them behind partitions, it’s a slippery slope to the nightly protests, broken windows and burned out shops of Portland, Oregon, or some other liberal city.
In 2017, the Alabama Legislature passed the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act. The act’s language is neutral. In short, it requires local governments to obtain state permission before moving, altering or renaming historically significant buildings and monuments that are 40 years old or older. In practice, the law is meant to stop cities and counties from removing Confederate monuments they may no longer want to keep up.
The law is an unwarranted intrusion of state government in local matters. Whether a monument stays or goes, or whether a school or other civic building is renamed, should be up to the government and the taxpayers directly responsible for it. These are local matters by their nature.
The Alabama Memorial Preservation Act is nothing more than the Legislature choosing to play culture war politics.
The penalty for violating the act is a $25,000, so private citizens have in some cases offered to raise the money to pay the fine for any city or county that takes down a Confederate monument.
Marshall, however, is not having any of that.
“First, any elected official who removes a historic monument or statue in violation of Alabama law has broken the law. He has not simply decided to ‘pay a fee’ so that he can lawfully have the monument or statue removed. He has committed an illegal act,” Marshall said in his statement.
“Second, any elected official sworn into office by taking an oath to uphold the law, who then breaks a duly enacted and constitutional law, has violated that oath.
“Third, despite what some newspapers might have you believe, any elected official who disregards the duties of his office in this manner has done so not out of courage, but has done so out of fear. This should not be celebrated, for disregarding the law subverts our democratic system.”
Yet sometimes disregarding the law upholds our democratic system: when the Freedom Riders disregarded laws segregating buses and bus terminals, for example, or when Blacks defied the law to sit at segregated lunch counters.
It is vital to remember that the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act itself was enacted to short circuit the democratic process, to prevent local governments from responding to the will of the people they represent.
What Marshall is now doing is trying to intimidate other cities and counties, like Morgan County and Florence, that have discussed or are already looking to remove their monuments. Local leaders should not let themselves be bullied.