After a white supremacist was accused of killing nine black churchgoers in South Carolina last summer, Gov. Robert Bentley of Alabama acted decisively: Within a week, and without public debate, he ordered the removal of four Confederate flags outside the State Capitol here.
But that was last year.
Now, not even nine months after the massacre at Charleston’s historic Emanuel AME Church, the momentum to force Confederate symbols from official display has often been slowed or stopped. In some states this year, including Alabama, lawmakers have been considering new ways to protect demonstrations of Confederate pride.
“The pendulum has gone the other direction, where it’s no longer about trying to take away the emblems,” said Dane Waters, a political consultant who worked on a failed effort this year to remove the battle flag from Mississippi’s state flag. “It’s now about protecting them and insulating them from future efforts, even after another Charleston-type shooting.”
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That attack produced widespread outrage about the battle flag’s prominence and helped lead to its removal July 10 from a monument at South Carolina’s State House. Plans are to display the flag at the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia.
A handful of Mississippi cities refused to fly the state’s flag, the only one in the country with the disputed emblem, and the speaker of the State House of Representatives urged a redesign. Confederate symbols were removed from public view. Retailers like Walmart stopped selling battle flag merchandise.
This year, legislators in at least 12 states have considered measures about how the Confederacy should be recognized. In some of those states, lawmakers sought to curb reminders of Confederate history, but there also have been bills, like proposals that advanced in Alabama and Tennessee, to offer new safeguards for controversial monuments and memorials.
“When the governor did what he did, it just punctuated the fact that we can’t erase history, we can’t whitewash it or push it under the carpet like it never happened,” said Sen. Gerald Allen of Alabama, whose bill would prohibit many monuments from being “relocated, removed, altered, renamed or otherwise disturbed” without a legislative committee’s approval. Allen, a Republican, said, “It’s important that we tell the story of what has happened in this country because that’s what shaped and molded us as a nation.”
Recognition of the Confederacy is widespread. The Southern Poverty Law Center will conclude in a forthcoming report that there are at least 1,170 publicly funded Confederate symbols nationwide.
Although critics of Confederate symbols were encouraged by their victories last year, people on both sides of the debate said few other significant changes appeared imminent. They said that political pressure in favor of traditional Southern imagery had outlasted the shock associated with the Charleston killings, for which Dylann Roof will stand trial this summer.
“I don’t think it was a false momentum,” said South Carolina Rep. Justin T. Bamberg, D-Bamberg. “You had an awakening of society in 2015, but an awakening in and of itself doesn’t mean action.”
The actions that did materialize, though, emboldened defenders of Confederate heritage displays.
“The rush to get rid of all Southern stuff in a day or a month or a week or whatever it was, it was sobering for a lot of people,” said Greg Stewart, the executive director of Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis’s last home, and a supporter of keeping the battle emblem on the Mississippi flag. “Our strength right now is the result of their overreach.”
Stewart said many Southerners were reluctant to allow state officials to decide how to commemorate the region’s history. “We knew in Mississippi that the trick always is to keep the decision in the hands of the public,” said Stewart, whose state voted overwhelmingly in 2001 to leave the battle emblem on the state flag.
This year, Mississippi lawmakers did not pass any of the dozen bills that could have led to a changed flag. The debate recently entered the courts when a Mississippi lawyer argued in a lawsuit against Gov. Phil Bryant that the flag “is tantamount to hateful government speech” and “encourages or incites private citizens to commit acts of racial violence.”
Bryant has called for another referendum on the flag. In an email, a spokesman described the lawsuit as a “frivolous attempt to use the federal court system to usurp the will of the people.”
Although courts have sometimes intervened in matters about the Confederate flag, clashes about Southern heritage are mostly expected to play out in the legislatures and in local government meetings. Much of the pressure is on governors and legislative leaders, who have sometimes balked at scheduling hearings or votes on bills relating to the Confederacy. Not all the results favor Confederate symbols.
Last week, Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia vetoed a bill that would have made it illegal for local officials “to disturb or interfere” with military memorials. On the same day, Gov. Rick Scott of Florida approved a plan to begin the long process of replacing a statue of a Confederate general that the state had added to the United States Capitol’s art collection.
But there is sharp division in Louisiana, where New Orleans officials decided to remove four Confederate monuments and spurred an uproar that led to legal challenges and a bill in the Legislature. (In Mississippi, one lawmaker cited the Legislature’s interest in “material that promotes the historical integrity of Mississippi and its most revered Confederate icons” and filed a resolution urging New Orleans to transfer the statues to Beauvoir.)
What will happen in Alabama is uncertain. Despite bipartisan concerns about Allen’s bill seizing local power, the Senate easily approved the proposal. But lawmakers and lobbyists said the measure appeared to be in jeopardy in the House.
Allen often notes that his legislation would offer equally rigid protections for monuments that draw little opposition these days, like one of Jesse Owens, the revered Olympian from Alabama who was black. But black lawmakers say that argument masks the intentions of the bill, which is similar to one that Tennessee lawmakers passed this month.