But in May, the Alabama Legislature passed a law that bars the “relocation, removal, alteration, renaming, or other disturbance of any architecturally significant building, memorial building, memorial street, or monument located on public property which has been in place for 40 or more years.” That meant Bell couldn’t have it removed, and when the mayor decided to erect a barrier around the monument, blocking it from public view, the state attorney general promptly sued him and the city for violating the law.
Across the South, citizens are rising up and demanding that their towns and cities remove Confederate monuments. And in many of those cities, local officials are reckoning with the fact that they don’t actually have the power to do that. Alabama’s is the newest, but several states also have laws on the books that are designed to prevent the removal of Civil War memorials. In North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississippi, statues are protected by laws that preempt local governments from removing them. And the standoff in Charlottesville was catalyzed by a Virginia state law that prevented local authorities from removing the Lee statue, as they’d desired. (On Tuesday, workers draped a large black tarp over the statue.)