Project Say Something: Voting Rights and Confederate Monuments 

 

How are voting rights connected to Confederate monuments in the south? While voting rights for African Americans were initiated through the Civil Rights amendments following the Civil War, a long backlash followed that disenfranchised black people throughout the south until the 1960s. In 1901, the state of Alabama adopted a new constitution that disenfranchised black people through poll taxes, literacy tests, and a “grandfather clause.” This reassertion of white supremacy was part of a larger movement—one that saw the very public dedication of Confederate monuments in public spaces

In 1901, Alabama’s politicians and ruling elite set about to remake the state’s constitution. This trend was popular throughout the south in the last decade of the nineteenth century. It was a specific reaction to a political threat that the ruling party—the Democrats—had not faced before: a coalition of farmers and miners known as the Populist Party.

The Populist Party challenged the existing Democratic power structure in the elections of 1892 and 1894. The populists made up several voting blocs throughout the state, including small landowners, sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and an emerging working class made up of miners. The party ran Reuben Kolb for governor on a platform that promised to abolish the convict-lease system and provide political and legal protection for African Americans. These concepts scared the Democratic power structure so much that they called for a Constitutional Convention to re-establish white supremacy through the disenfranchisement of African Americans.

Other states felt similar pressure. In 1890, Mississippi passed a new constitution, followed by South Carolina (1895), Louisiana (1898), and North Carolina (1900)—all of which implemented some combination of poll tax, property qualification, or education standard aimed at disenfranchising African Americans.

The Alabama Constitution introduced literacy tests and a one-year employment requirement for all voters. The Constitution disqualified individuals that had been convicted of (often made up) minor crimes like vagrancy. People with “moral failings” could also be disqualified.  A grandfather clause—by which any veteran of a 19th century war and their descendants could bypass all other restrictions—enfranchised many poor whites, while disenfranchising African Americans who were not allowed to serve in the military. Finally, a poll tax was instituted for all voters between the ages of 21 and 45—the proceeds of which went to the schools of each county.

Emmet O’Neal, born in Florence Alabama, served on the Committee on Suffrage and Elections. O’Neal would later become governor of the state and is known in Florence for having purchased Courtview, a prominent house at the end of Court Street. At the Convention, O’Neal was one of the most outspoken advocates for white supremacy. He claimed that the goal of the convention was to make permanent “white supremacy in this State.” (O’Neal further asserted that women should not be granted the right to vote, claiming that “they would not exercise it if you granted it to them.”)

While white politicians were cementing white supremacy in the state constitution, social advocates were busy erecting statues to white supremacy in public spaces. In 1903, the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a monument honoring the Confederate soldiers from Lauderdale County, Alabama, in front of the courthouse in downtown Florence.

The history of the Confederate monument, like African American enfranchisement, is one of re-radicalization. Initially, the Ladies Memorial Association of Florence sought a space for the monument in the city cemetery. With the Civil War—and its physical and human devastation—in the past, memorialization efforts across the south took a somber route. Obelisks and monuments in cemeteries and parks were the norm.

By the 1880’s, and well into the early 1900’s, memorialization efforts took on a decidedly public purpose. Now, monuments to soldiers and generals were placed in very public spaces for everyone to see. It was a way of both convincing ex-Confederates that their cause was worth fighting and a signal to ascendant African Americans that white supremacy was still the order of the day.

While voting rights and Confederate monuments may not elicit an immediate connection, the thread that binds them is a reassertion of white supremacy throughout the south. Five years after the Supreme Court upheld Plessy v. Ferguson, which allowed for legal segregation, the state of Alabama sought to further disenfranchise its African American citizens. A capstone to this legal disenfranchisement was the very public unveiling of Confederate statues—honoring the very people that a generation before had fought to keep black people enslaved.


-Brian Murphy
Brian Murphy works as a historian for the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area and the City of Florence Museums. His research interests include African American history, the history of urban renewal and public housing, and Civil War memory.

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