Alabama is currently celebrating Confederate Heritage Month with a state-wide holiday and a series of public events aimed at remembering and honoring those who fought on the side of southern, slave-owning states during the Civil War. At one such event this week, organized by the Ladies’ Memorial Association, Alabama’s Secretary of State John Merrill lamented recent calls to remove Confederate symbols from government buildings.
“The next question that has to be asked is so what’s the next thing you are going to do,” he asked, “are you going to take a bulldozer to the monument and forget what people fought for to preserve a way of life that makes us special and unique?”
Civil rights groups, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, slammed the remark as “shameful.” But in a follow-up conversation with ThinkProgress, Merrill explained that the “way of life” he celebrates is based on Confederate soldiers’ independent spirit, not their advocacy for slavery.
“When we have things happen in our state, we don’t rely on the federal government to come take care of us,” he said. “We take care of ourselves. For example, after the tornadoes in 2011, or after the massive flooding we had. That’s who we are. That’s who these people were. I’m proud of that.”
Alabama, however, is the ninth most reliant on federal aid out of the 50 states, taking far more in aid than the state pays back in taxes. As for the 2011 tornado damage Merrill mentioned, an auditor recently found that the state improperly received about $1.2 million in federal aid that it now must pay back. Antebellum Alabama’s “self-reliance,” meanwhile, depended from its founding on the unpaid labor of hundreds of thousands of slaves.
Merrill explained to ThinkProgress that he wanted to participate in a “celebration of the heritage of the south” because he believes young people need to “to be respectful of those historical traits we hold dear.” Those traits, he emphasized, are “not related to race, divisiveness, or a heritage of fighting.” Rather, they are “pride in our work and in our communities.”
He repeatedly assured ThinkProgress that he personally has no racial biases, noting that he owns a signed photo of Alabama civil rights icon John Lewis, and touting the diversity in his agency.
“We’ve got two African Americans that work in the lobby area of our office here,” he said. “None of them are working here because they’re black, but because they’re highly-qualified, trained professionals. I judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.”
The controversy over the Secretary of State’s remarks comes amidst a national debate over how to appropriately remember the state-sanctioned slavery on which much of the U.S. was founded and sustained for hundreds of years. Protests erupted in South Carolina after a young man killed nine black church members in a racially-motivated hate crime, and resulted in the state removing the Confederate flag from its state capitol. The town of Danville, Virginia, known as the “Last Capitol of the Confederacy,” also took down its battle flag from public grounds after a multi-year debate.
But many states are moving in the opposite direction. Like Alabama, Mississippi is celebrating its Confederate heritage this month, yet discussion of the slavery the state once depended on is almost entirely absent from official state proclamations of the holiday — which includes only a vague allusion to “mistakes.” The state also rejected a push in February to remove the Confederate cross from its state flag.
In Alabama and across the country, people have been demonstrating against the continued state display of Confederate memorials and flags. At a protest in DC in September, a group of students of color told ThinkProgress they feel “genuinely afraid” when they encounter such symbols.
“I feel scared when I see it,” said Winter Brooks, an African-American student at American University. “It’s a symbol of hate, of pro-slavery, anti-blackness, anti-minorities. It’s frightening.”