By Dr. Henry Mabry
More questions remain concerning the $800 million prison bond issue. Under the plan, all but two prisons are to be shuttered, four new prisons will replace all of those being closed, and the huge overcrowding problem is supposed to be eliminated.
The only problem with this assertion is that overcrowding will remain after throwing $800 million at the prison system. There are over 20,000 maximum and medium security inmates plus another couple of thousand waiting in the wings at the jails, etc., to come into the system. The new $800 million plan calls for building 13,000 replacement beds. Where will the other 7,000 maximum and medium security prisoners be located? Where will the state-custody inmates being temporarily housed in county jails go? Where will the growth in inmate population go?
If only two prisons will remain open, then the existing two prisons could house only between 1,200 and 2,000 inmates each based upon capacity levels, and such levels are at overcapacity, too. Leaving only two existing prisons open would still mean overcapacity of at least 5,000 prisoners regardless of how the new plan is implemented. Corrections says the new plan, along with sentencing reforms, would reduce overcapacity from 180 percent down to 125 percent over a five year period. Why would not three or four additional prisons remain open to address at least the assumed overcapacity? The answer is probably that doing so would not meet the “savings” amounts assumed under the plan. Keeping three or four additional prisons operating would mean an additional cost of probably $50 million or more and this would, of course, negate the presumed savings to finance the plan.
So, in essence, the prison plan along with sentencing reform only addresses part of the prison overcrowding issue. In order to eliminate the overcrowding it would likely cost $50 million per year, in addition to any savings not realized under the prison proposal.
The prison plan is really not a plan, per se. The prison plan is only a mechanism to address some of the problem during one snapshot in time. It calls for replacing existing beds for maximum and medium security inmates but it somehow does not address over a third of the subject population, population growth, and existing system inadequacies.
Gov. Robert Bentley’s premise has been that the state can operate with less if it shelves all of these antiquated and inefficient prisons. Prison poster children include Tutwiler and Holman, two of the scariest places that would be perfect for Stephen King to use as a backdrop. Holman is known by some as “The Slaughterhouse,” and Tutwiler has been infamous for as long as anyone can remember. Not all Alabama’s prisons are as relatively draconian or eerie. Half of the so-called antiquated prisons were built in the 1980s and 1990s–Bibb, Easterling, Ventress, Elmore, Donaldson, Bullock, Limestone, and St. Clair. These places are no Grand Hotel at Pt. Clear by any means, but these facilities are not exactly Shawshank Redemption era built either. These newer prisons house 62% of the medium or maximum population. Guess how many prisoners are housed in the newer prisons? Coincidentally, that number is 13,000, which is roughly the same number as the number of new beds the governor wants to build. Tutwiler and Holman, by the way, have a capacity of roughly 2,000 between them.
The newer prisons do have issues. This is going to be the case when the state only spends $3 million a year on building maintenance and less than a million a year on capital projects. But, the fact of the matter is that selling the plan has been based upon closing all of these antiquated facilities as if they were built when Thomas Kilby and Bibb Graves served as governor. But, the fact is that most of Alabama’s major prison facilities were built during Gov. George Wallace’s last term, under Gov. Guy Hunt, and under Gov. Fob James’ second term. Only 7,000 beds were pre-1982 built. If newer prisons are having to be replaced because of the lack of facility upkeep over the years, then where is the part of the new plan to address deferred maintenance in the future for the new prisons to be built? Depending upon the presumed new prison lifespans this means an additional $16 million to $24 million per year can be expected to be needed to address maintenance. This is likely no part of any plan, and it would be disingenuous to suggest preparing for such new maintenance costs because the prisons need more officers first before extras like deferred maintenance should be considered. This, though, being said, the fact is that the state will be back in time to pass another bond issue that will cost the state billions of dollars because maintenance issues have not been addressed–Alabama and its viscous cycle.
Apparently, the prison bond issue bill is going to pass. The governor promises cost savings will pay for the project. The governor also promised no new taxes. Besides the plan’s proposed cost savings element there remain other issues of consideration, and cost savings needs revisiting as well.
What forethought has been given to existing prison locations for the new prisons? As is, existing prisons have thousands of acres of land. This land is already available and does not have to be purchased which is a another potential cost savings. Local governments have already built infrastructure to meet the needs of the existing prisons. As mentioned previously, local governments have an interest in keeping prisons open or recruiting the new prison sites to their areas. Existing prison communities should have the upper hand in being able to enhance infrastructure investment rather than new communities having to start from scratch.
Mayor Rebecca Beasley of Clayton made a good point in her Alabama Political Reporter article regarding local investment and the existing prisons. Local governments across Alabama have pumped tens of millions of dollars into local infrastructure for the existing prisons for sewer treatment and water, plus other issues like police protection, fire protection, schools and roads. In areas where prisons are the biggest industries, what will those communities do if their largest industry is closed by gubernatorial mandate? Will local communities be made whole for keeping up and modernizing infrastructure that supports the prisons? For communities with 30 year old prisons, those communities have most likely had to make improvements or rebuild water and treatment facilities to continue service. Such communities may have just made further investment during the past five years to support prison infrastructure needs for the next 20 years. Will the state help communities with this sunk cost or will communities face closure alone?
Further, the existing prison communities already have corrections staff living in those communities. Will relocating prisons mean existing prison employees will have to uproot their families to get the same jobs in new communities? Will not eliminating overtime be a disincentive for many officers faced with moving for a 20 percent paycut? Has the state taken into consideration relocation costs or are state employees going to have to eat such costs on their own?
Currently, there are three areas in the state of one or two counties in size that each house three or more prisons. These include Elmore/Montgomery Counties, Escambia County, and Bullock/Barbour Counties. If the state is going to build “megaprisons,” then would it not make sense for the new facilities, at least in part, be located in those areas already having large Corrections employee populations? At least in the Correction Department’s updated plan it says that new prisons will be located in north, central, and south Alabama in proximity to existing prisons because of this issue.
With only three proposed male “mega prisons,” and one of these being slated for north Alabama, one of the three existing current prison hotspots will be left without a chair when the music stops. One area will be the big loser–will it be Elmore/Montgomery, Bullock/Barbour, or Escambia? Those communities probably want to know. Maybe the consolation prize for one of these areas would be leaving one or two facilities open. If the concern, though, is replacing antiquated prisons, then this might leave Escambia, home of “House of Pain” Holman, and Elmore Counties behind the eight ball.
So, in “northern Alabama” will the new prison be in Limestone, Jefferson, or St. Clair County? In central Alabama, will the new prison be in Elmore or Bibb County? In south Alabama, will the megaprison be in Escambia County, Bullock, or Barbour County? Will the new Tutwiler be in Elmore? What two facilities will remain in existence? Will it be assumably Americans with Disabilities Act compliant Bibb? What about the other newest of the new Ventress, Limestone, Bullock, or Easterling?
The new prison plan claims $21 million in annual overtime savings, $17 million of which is wages. This means that ten to 20 percent of Corrections officer pay will go away which may mean Corrections officers leaving state service in pursuit of other employment. Attrition cost savings for 350 personnel is estimated to be another $17.5 million. If the overtime and attrition estimates are correct, then almost a fifth of personnel costs of the entire system is estimated by Corrections to be saved by building new prisons. Already, Corrections says it is understaffed by 2,000 employees. Corrections says under the plan that no employees will lose their jobs. Is it realistic to think with an existing personnel shortage of 35% that the new prison plan will save over 18% of existing prison wages? Is it realistic to think that one of every four non-security prison employees will disappear because of consolidation?
The $800 million prison plan assumes annual savings of $50 million, and almost $40 million of this supposed savings comes from reducing personnel costs in an already understaffed and underfunded system. Savings may be realized to pay for financing the new bond issuance; however, numerous questions still remain. If the savings do not occur after the new prisons become operational and unspoken needs arise, then more appropriations will be needed sooner rather than later, and that sooner may be in as little as three years from now.
Likewise, the new prison plan has been hailed as the way to fix prison overcrowding along with other reforms. Unfortunately, as admitted by Corrections, the $800 million plan plus letting prisoners go will still result in having an overcapacity prison system. Addressing overcrowding would increase the state’s bill by $50 million a year, so it appears that overcrowding is here to stay regardless of whether the $800 million bond issue passes or not.
Dr. Henry C. Mabry served as State Finance Director from 1999-2003. He currently heads Mabry & Co., and can be reached at [email protected]
Opinion | Solving Alabama’s unemployment crisis is a matter of patriotism
Patriotism is at the top of my mind these days as we prepare for this weekend’s Fourth of July celebrations. I feel a great sense of pride in our nation, even though I often disagree with political leaders at various levels of government.
You can love your country and love many things about your country but still see problems and areas where we can do better as a city, state or nation. And one of the areas where we seem to be struggling here in Alabama is with our unemployment situation.
No one in leadership could have predicted that the coronavirus would hit us the way that it has, and our leaders have struggled to balance the need to keep our people healthy with the need to keep our economy running.
It’s a difficult balance, and while the numbers of new infections of the coronavirus keep going up and keep getting media attention, we are also seeing our unemployment benefits being stretched to the max.
The Alabama Department of Labor is understaffed and overwhelmed by the flood of people filing for unemployment benefits. The Department’s employees are making a heroic effort to make sure that those with legitimate needs are getting the help they need to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. But even so, the unemployed have to wait for hours just to get a ticket that would allow them to speak with an employee and file a claim for their benefits.
But what’s even more concerning is the fact that the state’s unemployment fund is on track to become financially insolvent by the end of the summer. If that happens, then the state will have no choice but to borrow more money from the federal government.
Of course, everyone’s hope is that this coronavirus will begin to slow down, a vaccine will be invented, and business will be able to return to normal. Most people don’t want to rely on government checks to survive and would much rather get back to work as soon as possible.
But for now, at least, the economy is recovering slowly and our unemployment rate, while improving, is still over 6 percent. And that means that, even with borrowed federal money and the recently announced federal extended benefits program, Alabama is still in trouble and our unemployment funds are still in a dangerous situation.
As bad as the situation is, there is a possible solution that our state leaders can and should be considering, if they can get past their current bickering.
The federal government has already sent funding through the CARES Act to help the state battle the coronavirus. Most of that money should be going to providing healthcare services, such as testing for COVID-19, and personal protection equipment like masks and gloves for healthcare workers and employees in essential industries.
However, there’s no reason why some of that money can’t also go towards our unemployment program to help those who are out of work because of the coronavirus.
If some state leaders think they can use up to $200 million of that money to build a new State House, then why can’t they use that money to keep Alabama families fed and housed for a few more weeks?
As the legislative session came to an end a few weeks ago, lawmakers and the governor went to war with each other over how to spend that money. Instead of fighting over pet projects, they should be putting that money into Alabama’s families to help them survive this crisis.
The Fourth of July is all about patriotism, and there’s nothing more patriotic that solving our unemployment crisis and helping Alabama families get back on their feet.
Craig Ford is the owner of Ford Insurance Agency and the Gadsden Messenger. He represented Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives for 18 years.
Opinion | Gov. Ivey: This is our time, Alabama
In a few days, America will celebrate her 244th birthday. Traditionally, many towns and cities around the country light up the night with fireworks and music festivals. In 1776, John Adams predicted that Independence Day would be “celebrated by succeeding generations” with “pomp and circumstance…bonfires and illuminations.”
However, largely because of COVID-19, this year’s observance of our country’s birth will likely be a bit more subdued than previous years. While unfortunate, this is certainly understandable.
Today – and very likely in the days that will follow – instead of talking about what unites us as one nation – other conversations will occur that are, quite frankly, a bit more difficult and challenging.
My personal hope – and prayer – for this year’s 4th of July is that the marvel of our great country – how we started, what we’ve had to overcome, what we’ve accomplished and where we are going – isn’t lost on any of us.
We are all searching for “a more perfect union” during these trying and demanding days.
Over the past several weeks, our nation has been having one of those painful, yet overdue, discussions about the subject of race.
The mere mention of race often makes some people uncomfortable, even though it is a topic that has been around since the beginning of time.
Nationally, a conversation about race brings with it the opportunity where even friends can disagree on solutions; it also can be a catalyst to help total strangers find common ground and see things eye-to-eye with someone they previously did not even know.
Here in Alabama, conversations about race are often set against a backdrop of our state’s long – and at times – ugly history on the subject.
No one can say that America’s history hasn’t had its own share of darkness, pain and suffering.
But with challenge always comes opportunity.
For instance, Montgomery is both the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the cradle of the Confederacy. What a contrast for our Capital City.
The fact is our entire state has, in many ways, played a central role in the ever-evolving story of America and how our wonderful country has, itself, changed and progressed through the years.
Ever since the senseless death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, thousands of Alabamians – of all races, young and old – have taken to the streets of our largest cities and smallest towns in protest to demand change and to seek justice.
These frustrations are understandable.
Change often comes too slowly for some and too quickly for others. As only the second female to be elected governor of our state in more than 200 years, I can attest to this.
Most of us recognize that our views on issues such as race relations tend to grow out of our own background and experiences. But, fortunately, our views can change and broaden as we talk and learn from each other.
As a nation, we believe that all people are created equal in their own rights as citizens, but we also know that making this ideal a reality is still a challenge for us.
Even with the election of America’s first African American president 12 years ago, racial, economic and social barriers continue to exist throughout our country. This just happens to be our time in history to ensure we are building on the progress of the past, as we take steps forward on what has proven to be a long, difficult journey.
Folks, the fact is we need to have real discussions – as an Alabama family. No one should be under the false illusion that simply renaming a building or pulling a monument down, in and of itself, will completely fix systemic discrimination.
Back in January, I invited a group of 65 prominent African American leaders – from all throughout Alabama – to meet with me in Montgomery to begin having a dialogue on issues that truly matter to our African American community in this state. This dedicated group – known as Alabama United – is helping to bring some very legitimate concerns and issues to the table for both conversation and action.
As an example, Alabama will continue to support law enforcement that is sensitive to the communities in which they serve. We have thousands of dedicated men and women who put their lives on the line to protect our state every single day. But we can – and must – make certain that our state’s policies and procedures reflect the legitimate concerns that many citizens have about these important issues.
I am confident all these conversations – and hopefully many more – will lead to a host of inspirational ideas that will lead to a more informed debate and enactment of sound public policy.
We must develop ways to advance all communities that lack access to good schools, jobs, and other opportunities. As governor, I will continue to make education and achieving a good job a priority – it distresses me that some of our rural areas and inner cities face some of the greatest challenges in education.
There are other critical issues that must be addressed, and I will continue to look for solutions along with you.
Everyone knows government cannot solve these problems alone. Some of the greatest solutions will come from private citizens as well as businesses, higher education, churches and foundations. Together, we can all be a part of supporting and building more inclusive communities.
In other words, solving these problems comes from leaning on the principles that make us who we are – our faith – which is embodied in the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
My beliefs on how to treat people were shaped in Wilcox County and my faith was developed at the Camden Baptist Church.
The bible tells us over and over that our number one goal is to love God with all of one’s heart and then to love our neighbor as we love our self. That is what I strive to do every day.
When anyone feels forgotten and marginalized, compassion compels us to embrace, assist and share in their suffering. We must not let race divide us. We must grow and advance together.
Being informed by our past, let us now carefully examine our future and work towards positive change. Together, we can envision an Alabama where all her people truly live up to the greatness within our grasp. We cannot change the past or erase our history… But we can build a future that values the worth of each and every citizen.
So, in closing, my hope and prayer for our country as we pause to celebrate America’s 244th birthday, is that we make the most of this moment.
As for our state, let’s make this a time to heal, to commit ourselves to finding consensus, not conflict, and to show the rest of the nation how far we have come, even as we have further to go.
These first steps – just as we are beginning our third century as a state – may be our most important steps yet.
This is our time, Alabama. May God continue to bless each of you and the great state of Alabama.
Opinion | Our sacred honor
This weekend America will celebrate its 244th birthday. Unfortunately, we do so in a time of a pandemic, a struggling economy, and violent protests. But, it’s still our birthday, and we should both commemorate and celebrate it.
We usually do a good job in our celebration, although this year will be different since social distancing means we’ll be in smaller groups and public fireworks displays have been cancelled. I suspect most of us will find a way to gather with family and close friends to cook out and show the red, white, and blue.
But, a commemoration is more than that. Merriam-Webster defines “commemorate” as “to call to remembrance” or “to serve as a memorial of.” How many of us will stop and remember what it meant for the Second Continental Congress to not only declare our independence from Britain but also to state our reasons for doing so in majestic language positing the highest ideals?
Let me make a suggestion. This Fourth, get a copy of the Declaration and read it. My extended family and friends usually get together and have several of us read the various portions of the Declaration out loud and talk about its meaning. It doesn’t take much time and we always experience a renewed appreciation for the gift that is our country. This year we will do it virtually, in smaller groups.
The Declaration was meant to be read out loud. Indeed, on July 4, Congress not only voted to accept it but also provided for its distribution to the states and the Continental Army. On July 6, John Hancock, as President of Congress, sent letters to the states and to General Washington enclosing broadsides of the Declaration requesting that they have it “proclaimed.” It was read out loud to celebrations in dozens of cities and towns in July and August, and to the Continental Army on July 9 as it prepared for the British Invasion of New York.
To some extent these events were meant to inform and inspire the people of a newly independent nation. But then, and now, the Declaration is a defining document. It not only said we were an independent nation but also who we aspired to be. Freedom and equality were to be at the heart of the nation’s character. And the rights stated in the Declaration—life liberty and the pursuit of happiness—are clearly labeled gifts from God himself to all of us.
The story of our country is really the unfolding of the efforts to live up to these aspirations. President Lincoln used it as a primary basis for arguing against slavery, as in the Gettysburg Address where he famously said, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” As a result of the Civil War these ideals were enshrined in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.
Martin Luther King used it in his 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech, referring to the Declaration and the Constitution as a promissory note to all Americans which he and others in the Civil Rights Movement called upon the nation to honor. As a result of the Movement, Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and in 1965 the Voting Rights Act.
I know it is fashionable now among our nation’s elites to view America as evil from our birth, evil in our institutions, and evil in our character. That view is a myth, untethered to the reality of our history. This myth is just a false preamble to lay the groundwork for their efforts to radically reorganize our society and have government run every detail of our lives, all the while piling tax upon tax on us. Isn’t this type of government what caused the founders to declare independence in the first place? These elites call themselves “progressive,” but their plan is actually a regression to a tyrannical central government taxing us against our will.
Despite our faults, some of which have been grievous, we are a nation established upon the highest ideals and which has the strength of its character and institutions to self-correct as we strive toward those ideals. Our history repeatedly demonstrates that is who we are.
David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian, several years ago told a gathering of those of us in Congress that Americans would be more hopeful if we only knew our history. How true. Complicated and contradictory, yes, but it is also a history of spectacular success and of a major force for good, here and abroad.
So, this week let’s celebrate and commemorate who we are. Let’s pause in the middle of our present troubles to renew our pride as Americans and draw lessons from our founding and history for the resolution of the issues of the day. And let us, like our founders, “mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.
Opinion | Descendants of Emma Sansom call for monument’s removal
We are descendants of Emma Sansom’s family and current or former members of the Gadsden community. We add our voices to the call to remove the statue at the head of Broad Street commemorating Sansom and Ku Klux Klan leader and Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
The monument was erected to enforce white supremacy in Gadsden, which we abhor and lament. The only defensible action today is to remove the statue.
Our community may have forgotten why this statue and others like it were erected. We must remember why in order to take wise action.
According to the Auburn University-supported Encyclopedia of Alabama: “Emma Sansom (1847-1900) played a heroic role in the Civil War, when as a teenager she led Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest across Black Creek in northern Alabama to capture Union colonel Abel D. Streight and his raiders in 1863.”
Sansom thus guided to victory the man who would become the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan as the United States struggled to establish a multiracial democracy.
Support of the Confederacy and white supremacy cannot be separated given the historical reality: an oligarchy of less than 400,000 enslavers brought about secession and war to guard their “property rights” over enslaved Black people. Alabama’s secession ordinance in January 1861 foregrounded the hope to “meet the slaveholding States of the South” and set up a new government. Cherokee County — which Gadsden was a part of in 1861 — voted against secession in that convention, as did St. Clair County and most northern Alabama counties.
This division among the white ruling class was an early sign of Confederate disunity as many Southerners resisted the Confederate project throughout the war. Thousands of Alabamians enlisted in the Union Army, mostly from northern Alabama where slavery was entrenched but less centralized than in the lower Alabama “black belt.”
Decades after Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House, the “Lost Cause” came into existence. The Lost Cause refers to the myth that a unified South fought for a heroic and noble civilization doomed by fate and the ahistorical “aggression” of the North. The elements that make up the Lost Cause draw from writings by Confederate President Jefferson Davis and by Confederate General Jubal Early in the 1870s and 1880s. They revised the history of secession and war to distance the Confederacy from slavery, focusing instead on antebellum South
Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun’s “states’ rights” philosophy — itself a platform to justify Calhoun’s support of what he called the “positive good” of slavery.
The purpose of the Lost Cause was to justify the enslaving oligarchy’s motives and mission in the minds of white Southerners, most of whom did not own slaves. Its cult conducts an enduring counter-revolution to deny Black people full citizenship to this day.
The legacy of the enslaving power is violence against Black people up to now. That violence includes the KKK’s multiple incarnations, the Jim Crow regime, thousands of lynchings, and repression against Black people struggling for civil rights. Today there are crosses burning in Alabama in reaction against the Black Lives Matter movement. The Lost Cause is not just a shameful past wound, its adherents oppress Black people in America to this day.
What motivated the white people of Gadsden to erect this monument to Sansom and Forrest is just one part of a larger project to retrench white rule and eliminate Black political freedom.
After federally-directed Reconstruction ended in 1877, the white ruling class regained political control of the Southern states. Democratic Party “Redeemer” governments passed Jim Crow laws segregating Blacks. The US Supreme Court decision Plessy v Ferguson in 1896 upheld Jim Crow segregation. From 1890 to 1908, almost every post-Confederate state including Alabama adopted a new constitution that disenfranchised the Black population.
The wave of post-Confederate activity was a direct cultural outgrowth of the repression wrought by Southern states against Black people as the Lost Cause cult took hold. This period birthed the “Dunning School” of historical thought that condemned Reconstruction as a corrupt mistake, a view modern historian Eric Foner calls “part of the edifice of the Jim Crow system.”
The United Daughters of the Confederacy, founded in 1894, was the most prolific organization building Lost Cause monuments. They also enlisted upper- and middle-class white youth and cultural institutions to carry the flame of the Lost Cause through highly influential educational campaigns including endorsing a book that lionized the Ku Klux Klan.
The year 1900, when various post-Confederate groups had their first national convention, began a massive wave of Confederate monument construction on government and publicly accessible property. The Southern Poverty Law Center identified 403 unique monuments constructed to the Lost Cause from 1900 to 1919, over half of all such monuments standing today.
In 1907, forty-four years after the Black Creek crossing, the Gadsden chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy put up the statue of Emma Sansom and Nathan Bedford Forrest overlooking the Coosa River. The Etowah County commissioners court, which today is the Etowah County Commission, also got the Alabama state Legislature to fund the statue. Public money paid for the establishment of this monument and the public must be involved in its disestablishment. This is not a private matter.
We should remember that the City of Gadsden’s establishment of this statue was only accountable to the white citizenry. Black people were unable to vote and enjoy representation during this time due to Jim Crow. It was not a unified city building this monument, but a segregated racial class directed by the torch-bearers of the Lost Cause. Viewing these statues in the context of history, it is clear that their purpose is domination of Black Americans struggling to secure their liberation.
The Sansom and Forrest statue is inextricable from the enslaving power and its twisted descendant ideologies. The statue’s base honorably depicts the man who oversaw the massacre of primarily Black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow which has been called “one of the bleakest, saddest events in American military history.” The public celebration of Forrest’s legacy is shameful, and Emma Sansom’s aid to his cause cannot be separated from its consequences. They supported enslavers against the liberation of millions of Black people.
The McNeel Marble Company of Georgia, which built the statue, clearly stated what it was selling in a Confederate Veteran article for its statues proclaiming “SUPREMACY.” The statue is not a contemporary historical marker; nor is it supposed to be a genuine likeness of Emma Sansom. Rather, the statue is a political provocation built only six years after Alabama’s constitutional change shifted the Jim Crow regime into overdrive. Its purpose has not faded. The statue’s memorial of Forrest and Sansom in 1907 is akin to erecting a statue to segregationist Birmingham leader Bull Connor today, a man who attacked civil rights protesters including children with dogs, fire hoses, and mass arrest in the early 1960s.
These monuments do harm lasting for generations when we forget the underlying causes of division and inequality in society. The roots of Black peoples’ oppression today have a lot to do with the erection and maintenance of that statue, as does the relatively wealthier position of white people in our community. To achieve justice, we must remember and then act in solidarity.
The multiracial movement calling for change in Gadsden is made up of our neighbors. They are not “outside agitators.” They have to live with the Lost Cause’s weight every day—as we all do.
Some white people in Gadsden say they feel a connection to this statue as part of their heritage, and consider the statue part of the fabric of their home. Our Black neighbors are making it clear that they agree, and that is exactly why they need to see change in our community. We want to live in a harmonious democratic society where all can live free of intimidation.
Many people who feel pride about Emma Sansom discuss “division” about the statue like it is a new phenomenon. The outcry against the statue is the voice of an awakened community. They understand that it is time to address the focal points of what has really caused a division in our community for over a hundred years. It only seems like a new “division” to those of us who benefit the most from the “normal” status quo.
We ask those who may feel a sense of pride about the statue to examine if most of their Black neighbors feel the same pride. You may say you are not personally racist and have good deeds to prove it. The statue’s effect in Gadsden is not about anyone’s personal feelings or failings – it is a feature of the systemic oppression that acts to this day against the freedom of Black people.
Gadsden’s population today is more than one-third Black people. What are we doing with a monument that celebrates an achievement meant to keep a third of our neighbors in bondage?
Think beyond your personal experience and towards the whole of the Gadsden community. Can we fulfill our potential as a beloved community if more than one-third of our neighbors are daily reminded that the town celebrates a time when their relatives were enslaved? Removing the statue will take a weight off our backs that we may have never recognized.
The debate that considers these statues as “history” today speaks to the success of the Lost Cause’s cultural hegemony. Yes, we must remember – a history never to repeat. Gadsden does not have to celebrate a man who led the perpetrators of racist terror. We can leave the Lost Cause behind, beginning by removing its symbols that haunt us.
Look to the heartening installation of a memorial four years ago to the memory of Black Gadsdenite Bunk Richardson. In Feburary 1906, Richardson was framed for the rape and murder of a white woman, taken from the Etowah County jail and lynched by a mob of 25 masked men.
This act of racist injustice happened the same year the UDC commissioned the statue of Sansom and Forrest on Broad Street. Identifying and commemorating the victims of injustice is a necessary part of making justice possible, and we can all do it together. Those are the kinds of memorials we need in Gadsden.
We can remove this statue just like other Alabama cities are doing. This month, the mayors of Birmingham and Mobile authorized and executed the removal of Lost Cause statues. The University of Alabama Board of Trustees and the Madison County Commission voted to remove Confederate memorials in recent weeks. The Gadsden community’s task is neither impossible, nor a logistical challenge. It is time to make the moral choice – no more Lost Cause in Gadsden.
What does it look like to tell the story of Gadsden that points us towards justice and away from racialized domination? If the statue of Sansom and Forrest remains standing somewhere when removed from public view, it needs context showing that it celebrates the cause of human enslavement – and that today we want to build a society of liberation for all people.
If we are silent, we are complicit in the ongoing injustice against Black people. As Emma Sansom’s nieces and nephews, the best first step we can take to abolish the stain of white supremacy in Gadsden is to remove this symbol of the enslaving power that once ruled this land. We can eliminate the source of division and fulfill the American promise of a democracy full of equal participants.
We are encouraged by the multiracial makeup of both the BLM protesters and the City Council members calling for the statue of Sansom and Forrest to be moved. The movement calling to take the statue down has already made progress in eliminating racial division by standing together. We stand with them. The promise of a democratic society, where all are created equal, lies after the statue’s shadow over Broad Street has faded. Remove the statue, and let’s get to work on building a beloved community in Gadsden and in the United States.
- Donald Rhea
- William Henry Rhea III
- Marie Rhea Singleton
- Richard Rhea
- Kelvin Knight
- Leigh Ann Rhea
- Nina Ellen Rhea
- Anna Rhea Knight Hopkins
- Karen Lynn Knight Craft
- Preston Rhea
- Holly Rhea Hanks
- Laney Rhea Eskridge
- William Henry Rhea IV