Alabama ‘monuments bill’ part of larger discussion

Both sides are right on this one. And they’re both wrong.

Regardless, one side prevailed easily in the state Senate Thursday in Montgomery, when the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act sailed through by a 24-7 vote.

The bill, as will come as no surprise, is aimed primarily at preserving and protecting long-standing Confederate monuments, street names, historic sites, etc., which have increasingly become issues of fierce debate as to their public appropriateness given documented links to slavery.

This is, obviously, a discussion that goes well beyond the Alabama Legislature and well beyond Alabama. This is an important American debate. Montgomery just happens to be one of the places it’s happening.

The bill, which now moves to the House, would prohibit changes to all monuments and public markers in Alabama that have stood for more than 20 years. Prominent among the opponents is Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, who participated in the historic 1965 march now known by the name of the city he represents. “This bill in the name of history is hurting history,” he said. “I am deeply grieved by this bill.”

The first part of that response is open to reasonable debate; the second is unarguable.

It couldn’t have mollified the civil rights veteran that the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, told Sanders, “This bill is here to help you,” alluding to the Edmund Pettus Bridge — a spectacularly patronizing bit of social and political tone deafness.

But removing, mothballing or destroying historic objects because time has moved beyond the eras and events they commemorate is a tricky matter. Deciding that a Confederate flag should no longer be an official state symbol is one thing; people who willfully refuse to acknowledge why Confederate history is deeply offensive to African Americans are clinging to a strain of myopic historical denial that has damaged this culture in ways that go well beyond the antebellum South and the Civil War.

But where’s the reasonable line to be drawn? The Jefferson Memorial honors a slave owner. Mount Rushmore, a favorite tourist destination, features carved faces of four presidents ... at a site taken from Native Americans who consider it hallowed ground. The White House was built largely with slave labor. And what about a vitally important American military installation named for a Confederate brigadier general named Henry L. Benning? The list would be virtually endless.

The proper way to preserve history and its remnants is honestly and unblinkingly. In the case of Confederate monuments, sites and references, their significance should be preserved as all history should be taught — in its full, complex, sometimes ugly and sometimes atrocious and sometimes magnificent human reality. Surely by now we’re past (aren’t we?) trying to sell Confederate history as myth-tainted nostalgia for the Glorious Lost Cause.

Opponents of this bill are absolutely right to object that local governments, not the state, should make the decisions about what to do with strictly local historic monuments and sites. (True students of Southern history will surely remember that resistance to central government authority was the ostensible reason for secession in the first place.)

The question is not whether to preserve historic monuments and other symbols whose associations can be ambiguous at best, acutely offensive at worst. The question is how. Neither pretending they don’t (or shouldn’t) exist, nor making overreaching laws declaring them untouchable is the right way to do it.