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Demise threats and the KKK: A black alabaman's battle to take away a Accomplice statue

(The second paragraph contains language that may offend some readers.)

From Tim Reid

(Reuters) – Since launching her campaign to move a Confederate statue from outside the District Court in her hometown of Florence, Alabama, Camille Bennett has seen everything: threats, violent online news and intimidation.

There was a white pastor's suggestion that someone shut their mouths; Then there was the time when a white motorcyclist sped on her and two boys during a racial justice march last summer and told her to "get the fuck out of the way."

Bennett has always received a setback for her activism in her small conservative community, but she says her most terrifying experience came in 2017 when five hooded and robed Ku Klux Klansmen (KKK) joined them during an LGBT Pride event harassed local park. was asked to address.

"I was shocked. I was very intimidated," said Bennett, the only black speaker at the park event. But she added, "I feel immensely happy at work. I don't let the threats define me."

Lori Feldman, 42, a white woman who helped remove the statue in honor of the servicemen of the slave-friendly Confederation and who moved from Brooklyn, New York to Alabama in 2017, was in attendance when Klansmen molested Bennett in a park.

"It was clear they wanted to make a declaration of hatred," Feldman said of the KKK, a white supremacist group that has terrorized black communities for over a century. "There were children who cried, who were afraid."

Intimidation, however, is not the only obstacle to those who campaign for the removal of Confederate symbols. Bennett, like many other black civil rights activists and their allies, continues to face legal and political obstacles at the state, county and city level.

"My people have suffered"

Bennett, 43, whose mother is a minister and who is herself a minister, founded the nonprofit Say Something project in 2014 to promote racial justice among black Americans.

One of his main tasks was to get Florence to face the importance of the Eternal Vigil, the ghostly white marble statue of an unnamed Confederate private individual in front of the Lauderdale County Courthouse.

During the Civil War of the 1860s, the southern states of the Confederation fought the North to maintain their economies based on the slavery of captured Africans and their American-born descendants.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group, there are over 300 Confederate monuments in America, mostly in the south, particularly in Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Tennessee.

Many Confederate monuments were erected long after the war – the statue of Florence was completed in 1903 – after reconstruction, when white southern segregationists worked to reverse the political and economic gains made by blacks. The monuments have long been a symbol of white supremacists like the KKK, which was founded by Confederate veterans.

The county turned down a proposal by Bennett to erect a statue next to the memorial of Dred Scott, who lived in Florence for 10 years in the 19th century and whose efforts as an enslaved man to achieve freedom resulted in a landmark Supreme Court ruling. After their proposal was rejected, Bennett requested that the Perpetual Vigil be moved to a Confederate cemetery less than a mile from the courthouse.

However, the five members of the Lauderdale County Commission, all white Republicans, declined, citing a 2017 state law prohibiting the removal or relocation of monuments.

This bill is part of a larger effort by GOP lawmakers in several states, including Georgia and West Virginia, to prevent the removal of statues following a statewide move to overthrow Confederate memorials. The Republican-backed bill was passed in the Alabama Legislature, despite opposition from lawmakers like Thomas Jackson of Thomasville, a black Democrat who spoke about what Confederate statues symbolize to black Americans.

"My people have suffered," Jackson said during the debate on the proposal. "Don't bring back the hard memories we went through so much to overcome."

Josh Dodd, white and leader of the Lauderdale County's Republican Party, is against the Eternal Vigil movement. "It is very important for many people to remember the past and those who died on both sides," he said.

The United Daughters of the Confederation, who funded the statue of Florence at the turn of the 20th century, firmly oppose the removal.

The group advocates "that all of these monuments with their original message remain in their original location," wrote their attorney Jack Hinton in a letter to an Alabama state senator last year.

The original message about the Eternal Vigil, as a first speech from 1903 when it was unveiled, was expressly against social equality for blacks in the south.

"Obstacles hinder change"

Nationwide protests against racism following the murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white policeman in Minnesota in May 2020, accelerated the movement to eradicate Confederate symbols. Over 160 Confederate monuments were dismantled in 2020, compared with 58 between 2015 and 2019, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Bennett and his supporters – black and white – marched in central Florence last summer to demand the relocation of the Eternal Vigil after Floyd's murder. In July 2020, three Lauderdale County residents filed lawsuits demanding that the statue remain in place. Her suit calls the statue a "historical and irreplaceable monument".

In October 2020, the Florence City Council unanimously passed a resolution supporting the relocation of the statue to the cemetery. He quoted "affected citizens" who want a move and the fact that some residents have agreed to bear the costs of the move. The city built a concrete base for the statue in the cemetery.

However, since the statue is on a county property, the city asked the county for permission to remove it.

Danny Pettus, who is white and chairs the district commission, told Reuters he would never support the statue's move, citing the 2017 State Monument Conservation Act. Violations of the law could result in a fine of US $ 25,000. Dollar lead.

Andy Betterton was elected Mayor of Florence in November 2020 for promising to move the statue. But now Betterton and members of the county commission say their hands are tied on the civil lawsuit. The lawsuit is now with a district court judge who has ordered that all acts related to the statue be suspended until the dispute is resolved.

Betterton declined to be interviewed by Reuters. In a statement, he said the lawsuit restricted him but added, "The removal and relocation of the statue is definitely one of my priorities and I am optimistic that we will see it removed."

For Bennett, the delays feel like an obstacle. “There were several obstacles, and the obstacles are always changing. So you will suspect that everyone is working together to prevent this memorial from being removed, ”she said.

But she added, “One way or another, we will prevail. We will not stop."

(Reporting by Tim Reid; Editing by Donna Bryson and Aurora Ellis)

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