Alabama Memorial Preservation Act

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The Alabama Memorial Preservation Act is a 2017 Alabama state law (Act of Alabama 2017-354) that prohibits the "relocation, removal, alteration, renaming, or other disturbance of any architecturally significant building, memorial building, memorial street, or monument located on public property which has been in place for 40 or more years."

The law created the 11-member Alabama Monument Protection Committee, its members to be appointed by September 1, 2017, and charged it with reviewing applications for waivers for any such actions by local governments, institutions or other custodians of public property.

In 2015 the status of monuments honoring the Confederate States of America was challenged by numerous activists in the wake of a mass shooting at an African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina. In Alabama, calls were made to remove Confederate flags from the grounds of the state capitol and to remove the Confederate Soldiers & Sailors Monument from Birmingham's Linn Park. The Birmingham Park & Recreation Board voted to study the possibility of removing the statue, prompting rallies from activists clamoring for quicker action, as well as protests from "heritage" groups like Save our South. That group filed a lawsuit against the city and the board seeking to require the monument's preservation, but the case was dismissed.

An earlier version of the law was first sponsored during the 2015 legislative session by Gerald Allen, who represents Alabama Senate District 21 in Lamar, Pickens and Tuscaloosa Counties. Originally titled the "Alabama Heritage Protection Act", his bill was intended to protect all statues, monuments, memorials, or plaques on public property. That bill contained an exception for such memorials that needed to be relocated for transportation projects. It died in committee. A revived version of Allen's bill passed the Senate and a House committee in 2016, but did not come to a vote in the House during that session.

A new version of the bill, co-sponsored by House District 30 Representative Mack Butler, passed both houses in 2017. In the Senate an amendment proposed by Linda Coleman-Madison reduced the protection period from 50 years to 20 years, meaning that Civil Rights Movement monuments would have the same protection. When it reached the House, several opponents noted that the timing, following the removal of the flags from the capitol, made it clear that Confederate heritage was the motivation for the bill. After three hours of debate, the measure passed by a 72-29 vote.

The bill was signed into law by Governor Kay Ivey on June 24, 2017. The act restricts the renaming or relocating monuments or memorials that have been in place for more than 20 years by requiring petition to the Alabama Monument Protection Committee. The law establishes a fine of $25,000 for any action taken in violation of the law. Exceptions to the requirements of the law are granted to artifacts in museum collections, and to actions taken for transportation, port or utility projects.

Proposed changes

In 2020 and 2021 Representative Juandalynn Givan introduced a proposed amendment to the act that would allow municipalities to transfer ownership of monuments to the Alabama Department of Archives and History or Alabama Historical Commission, which could then remove them for conservation and display at another site, such as the AHC's Confederate Memorial Park in Chilton County. Those bills did not pass out of the State Government Committee.

During the 2021 legislative session Representative Mike Holmes introduced new bills that would expand the scope of the law to say that, "No monument that is located on public property may be relocated; removed; altered; renamed; dishonored, disparaged, or reinterpreted with competing signage, wording, symbols, objects, or other types or means of communication located at the site of the monument; or otherwise disturbed," and also increase the penalty for violations to $10,000 per day, and apply them individually to "elected or appointed officials who violated the law or voted in favor of violating it." The Wetumpka-based "Southern Cultural Center" claimed to have participated in drafting the revised bills, which did not advance out of the State Government Committee.

Birmingham's Confederate Soldiers & Sailors Monument

Growing calls for the removal of the Confederate Soldiers & Sailors Monument in Birmingham's Linn Park were part of the context in which the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act was conceived. Birmingham mayor William Bell ordered public works crews to conceal, or "protect", the monument behind a plywood barrier on August 15, 2017.

The first enforcement of the law was initiated when Attorney General of Alabama Steve Marshall filed a lawsuit claiming that Bell's action violated the "letter and spirit" of the law, leaving him no choice but to act. Representative Chris England (District 70, Tuscaloosa) claimed that the law as passed actually provided no penalty for violations of the section protecting monuments more than 40 years old and that it would therefore be unenforceable with regard to the Birmingham Confederate monument.

A hearing in that case was held on April 13, 2018 before Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Mike Graffeo. Graffeo issued a ruling shortly before his January 2019 retirement from the bench voiding the 2017 law on the basis that it attempted to restrict the right of the citizens of Birmingham to speak collectively through their city government, and that it deprived the city of the right of due process. Activist Frank Matthews responded to the ruling by calling for the Birmingham Board of Parks and Recreation to remove the monument immediately.

Marshall appealed that ruling to the Alabama Supreme Court, which reversed Graffeo, instructing him to order the city to remove the barricade and pay a $25,000 fine. The court stated that the barricade negated the monument's intent, saying that, "Members of the public passing through Linn Park could have no way of knowing what the marble shaft rising from behind the plywood screen was intended to memorialize," and further ruled that municipalities do not enjoy the rights guaranteed by the constitution to individuals. The city filed a petition for a re-hearing, but it was denied.

A mob attempted to topple the monument on the evening of May 31, 2020 during widespread protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Mayor Randall Woodfin urged the crowd to disperse, promising that if they gave him 24 hours, he would have it safely removed. And in fact on the following night crews dismantled and removed the monument at the city's expense. A GoFundMe raised more than enough money to offset the cost of the work, as well as the anticipated $25,000 fine from the state. Mobile removed its statue of Raphael Semmes under similar circumstances days later, and the Madison County Commission petitioned the Committee on Alabama Monument Protection for a waiver to remove a memorial outside the courthouse in Huntsville.


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