By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
As cities remove confederate memorials nationwide, opinions on Gadsden’s Emma Samson monument remain a topic of fervent discussion.
At the Gadsden City Council’s Public Safety Committee meeting and pre-council meeting on June 30, city officials debated the fate of the downtown statue (pictured at right).
Though the Public Safety Committee includes Councilman Thomas Worthy, Councilman Ben Reed and Councilman Johnny Cannon, all city council members joined in the discussion. While some council members were in favor of relocating the Emma Samson monument located on Broad Street, others questioned the legalities of moving the statue. Renaming Forrest Cemetery was also proposed, yet the same law in question hinders immediate action.
The main concern for moving the statue lies with the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act of 2017, a law that prohibits the relocation, removal, alteration, renaming or other disturbance of monuments 20 years or older located on public property. Violation of the act results in a $25,000 fine.
Reed also mentioned U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent executive order protecting American monuments, which he felt might result in Gadsden’s loss of federal funding if the order was violated.
Councilman Deverick Williams attested to the spirit in which the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act was drafted, reminding the council of the Charlottesville “Unite the Right Rally” which resulted in a white supremacist driving a vehicle through a crowded group of peaceful protestors speaking out against confederate monuments. Williams also noted the state law was written very hastily and poorly, with numerous obscurities leaving specificities undefined.
Though Williams said the funds to cover the $25,000 penalty have already been raised, he does not advocate for breaking the law. He and Councilman Jason Wilson suggested an alternate approach to the situation.
“What I planned to suggest today outside of this committee is that the council president commission a sub-committee to study alternatives as it relates to this,” said Williams. “I would suggest that sub-committee include two educators, two historians, two elected officials and one member of the mayor’s staff or cabinet, preferably someone from planning and zoning.”
Wilson emphasized the manipulation of arguments on both sides, but pointed out that the state law referenced in the meetings is being challenged by dozens of Alabama cities. Wilson stated that the people of Gadsden are passionate about this issue, noting that the council received 700 signatures petitioning to keep the Samson monument where it sits and 1,000 signatures to move it.
“I would never recommend that this city take any action that is in violation of a law, but I do think that we can start having a conversation right now about what is inevitable,” said Wilson. “This clock will never tick backwards. This is not something that came up yesterday. In 10 years, the option to relocate that statue will be gone. You will not have a chance to save it. We are on the wrong side of history if we try to preserve that statue in its current place because it’s just a matter of time.”
Williams and Wilson stressed that the manner in which Gadsden responds to the Samson statue reflects its ability to progress. Williams claimed Gadsden has a great opportunity to move forward into a better era of healing, and economic and social prosperity. Both council members highlighted the message behind addressing the Samson statue.
“Being here for 40 years of my life, I can tell you that racism in this community still exists, just like it exists in every other community in America,” said Wilson. “To say that it doesn’t, and to say that statue is not some representation of a very hurtful time in our past is simply dismissive of our neighbors.”
Councilman Kent Back expressed that he believes the solution is out of the city council’s jurisdiction. Back drafted a resolution requesting city attorney Lee Roberts ask state attorney general Steve Marshall for definite answers and clarification concerning the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act.
“The fight that should happen is in Montgomery,” said Back. “In this room and for us right here, it should involve senator Andrew Jones, representative Gil Isbell and representative Becky Nordgren.”
While several solutions were suggested during the sessions, council members did not reach a unanimous resolution regarding both the Emma Samson monument and Forrest Cemetery. Both issues will continue to be discussed under regular business at the next meeting.