Hideous Spectre

0 n May 31, 2020, six days after the death of George Floyd ,the mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, rotated slowly in themiddle of a crowd of protesters clustered around the base of

a Confederate monument so tall it faded up into the dark night sky.1

As Randall Woodfin turned, he looked into the faces of the protesters

surrounding him. When I interviewed him almost a year later, he could

still picture their expressions. He saw anger and frustration, but also

sadness and fear.

Wo odfin, a Black thirty-nine-year-old lawyer turned politician, felt

the same emotions. He still had on the blue blazer and maroon T­

shirt with the city's slogan, PUTTING PEOPLE FIRST, he had worn to

address a rally about Floyd's death earlier that day. Another speaker

at that rally, Jermaine "FunnyMaine" Johnson, a stand-up comedian

and activist, had called for the audience to follow him to Linn Park in

downtown Birmingham.

"We need to tear down something tonight," Johnson told the crowd.

"Birmingham, the home of the civil rights movement, [needs to] tear

some shit down tonight."2

Johnson meant Birmingham's Confederate Soldiers and Sailors

Monument. Its large base, installed in 1894, was inscribed with a quote

from Jefferson Davis, praising those who died for the Confederacy:

"Th f h • 1· "3 Ine manner of their death was the crowning glory O t eir ives.




. "One more to go," the protesters moved toward th . c11anunS e mam mon-TheY tore away a plywood box covering its base and h' 1 rnent. c 1se ed at u . tion. They prodded the shaft with boards and 1 d . . .

5 inscrtP assoe It with

ic oozens of people heaved, trying to bring it down.ropes. Woodfin was in his office at city hall. One of his staffers, tracking

test on social media, called him over. Woodfin sa 'd the pro w a v1 eo ofa red ford F-150 backing up to the monument. Protesters attached a

to its row hitch and the driver hit the gas. rope The rope broke. If it hadn't, Woodfin realized the monument would

have crushed the truck as it fell. He decided he had to intervene beforesomeone got hurt.4

In the preceding days, many other cities had tried to quash protests by s ending in police. Woodfin believed this only escalated protesters'anger. He w anted the crowd in the park "to calm down and go home," but he thought the best way to convince them was to "put myself in the middle of it."

Woodfin hurriedly covered the few blocks from city hall to Linn Park and waded into the crowd. He borrowed Johnson's megaphone

and raised a hand. The protesters quieted to listen, holding up camera

phones whose flashes spot-lit the mayor as he spoke. "I understand

the frustration and the anger you have," he said. But when he toldthe crowd, "I gotta ask you to stand down," they broke into boos and

shouts of"No justice, no peace!" It's not that Woodfin wanted the monument there. He thinks Con­

federate monuments celebrate the "suppression of an entire Black race." He grew up in Birmingham using textbooks that barely men­tioned slavery, thanks to the efforts of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Once he grew up, he realized how harmful their dis­torted picture of history was. "What the hell do we look like honoringbehavior that says it's OK for Black people to be slaves and second•class citizens?" Woodfin asked me. "What the hell?". the city's legal department had advised Woodfin again5r remov­ing the monument. He feared he might even be criminally prosecuted

  • Confederate Funerary Monuments in Alabama and Resistance to Reconciliation, 1884-1923
  • NOTES TO PAGES 139-140
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