When Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans inside a storied black church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 2015, he hoped to incite a “race war.” He failed. What his violence did provoke, however, was a national reassessment of Confederate symbolism. Photographs of the murderer posing with the Confederate flag galvanized the fight to remove symbols of that failed rebellion from public spaces. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, at least 60 of the over 1,500 publicly funded Confederate symbols nationwide have been pulled down or renamed by state and local governments since the massacre.
In some cases, these changes took place without complaint, but other instances provoked vehement resistance. In New Orleans, four prominent monuments were removed in April and May, but only after many delays, and then mostly under the cover of darkness by workers in bulletproof vests because of the death threats they had received. Despite these threats, other communities, such as Baltimore, have announced their intention to follow suit.
As the movement to remove Confederate monuments gains steam, so too does the opposition. In addition to street demonstrations, lawsuits, and death threats, the backlash to monument removal is now taking hold in state legislatures. Republican state lawmakers across the South have proposed legislation to protect Confederate symbols. Since 2015, bills have been signed into law in Alabama, North Carolina, and Tennessee, and proposed in Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Virginia. While these laws are written broadly to protect monuments to any historical cause, it is clear that they designed to prevent blue (often black) cities and towns in deep-red states from altering symbols of the Confederacy. The Alabama law, for instance, means that Birmingham, which is nearly three-quarters African American, cannot implement the city’s 2015 decision to remove a 52-foot monument from a city park.