BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CN) – Across the South, cities are weighing what to do with statues commemorating leaders and soldiers of the Confederacy in response to the deadly clash in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend.
But in Birmingham, Ala., the issue is less about whether something should be done about a 50-foot obelisk and more about whether something can be done at all.
On Wednesday, Alabama sued the city of Birmingham and its mayor, William Bell, for covering up a monument to Confederate soldiers and sailors the day before.
The complaint, filed in Jefferson County Circuit Court, alleges the city violated one of Alabama’s newest laws: the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act. Passed in May, it aims to prevent the alteration or removal of any significant structure on public property that sat in place for more than 40 years.
“By affixing tarps and placing plywood around the Linn Park Memorial such that it is hidden from view, the defendants have ‘altered’ or ‘otherwise disturbed’ the memorial in violation of the letter and spirit of the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act,” the lawsuit states.
Alabama asks the court to declare Birmingham and its mayor in violation of the law, and fine the city $25,000 every day the memorial remains covered.
Private funds paid for the “memorial to soldiers and sailors who died in the Civil War,” according to the complaint, and it was placed on public land in 1905. As such, it’s culturally and historically significant, the state claims.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said in a statement, “The City of Birmingham does not have the right to violate the law and leaves my office with no choice but to file suit.”
But some local officials don’t see the Confederacy as part of Birmingham’s legacy because the city was established during Reconstruction, in 1871. Instead, they see the city as the birthplace of the civil rights movement.
The day before the state sued, Johnathan Austin, president of Birmingham’s City Council, said the obelisk in Linn Park was in the same vein as the injustices in Alabama’s history. He implored Bell, saying, “Mr. Mayor, tear down those statues,” even though the mayor is charged with upholding the law.
“More than 50 years ago in a cell just a few blocks from where we sit today, Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] instructed us on the importance of identifying and defying unjust laws,” Austin said in a statement. “There is nothing more degrading than slavery, or the rejection of the fundamental principle that all men are created equal. The so-called ‘lost cause’ of the Confederacy degraded African Americans and any celebration of that gives life to that cause.”
Alabama’s lawsuit alleges Bell plans to cover the monument indefinitely, surrounding it with plywood.
On Tuesday, Mayor Bell addressed the Memorial Preservation Act and told local reporters, “In that statute, it says that municipalities cannot remove those unless they get authority from some commission or board that was created. But in the language it does not speak to temporary covering up of those facilities until such time as we are able to make a determination as to what legally we can do with them.”
The state says the law at issue did not give the committee it established the power to approve the removal or alteration of monuments in place for 40 years or more.
Birmingham considered what to do with the obelisk for some time, Bell said. But after the violence in Charlottesville, the city decided it was time to hide the monument from public view.
“It is my desire … to no longer allow this statue to be seen by the public,” Bell said, “until such time that we can tell the full story of slavery, the full story of what the Confederacy really meant.”
The Birmingham Mayor’s Office did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment on Alabama’s lawsuit. Neither did a representative for the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
While Birmingham covered its monument, places like the Tennessee Capitol in Nashville and San Antonio are mulling what to do with their memorials to the Confederacy.
In the pre-dawn hours Wednesday, Baltimore removed its statue of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson sitting side-by-side on horses, lifting the statue by crane onto a waiting flatbed truck.