MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Alabama's capital city last month removed the Confederate president's name from an avenue and renamed it after a lawyer known for his work during the civil rights movement.
Now the state attorney general says the city must pay a fine or face a lawsuit for violating a state law protecting Confederate monuments and other longstanding memorials.
Montgomery last month changed the name of Jeff Davis Avenue to Fred D. Gray Avenue. Gray, who grew up on that same street, represented Rosa Parks and others in cases that fought Deep South segregation practices and was dubbed by Martin Luther King Jr. as “the chief counsel for the protest movement."
The Alabama attorney general’s office sent a Nov. 5 letter to Montgomery officials saying the city must pay a $25,000 fine by Dec. 8, “otherwise, the attorney general will file suit on behalf of the state.”
Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed said changing the name was the right thing to do.
“It was important that we show, not only our residents here, but people from afar that this is a new Montgomery,” Reed, the city’s first Black mayor said in a telephone interview. It was Reed's suggestion to rename the street after Gray.
“We want to honor those heroes that have fought to make this union as perfect as it can be. When I see a lot of the Confederate symbols that we have in the city, it sends a message that we are focused on the lost cause as opposed to those things that bring us together under the Stars and Stripes.”
The Alabama Memorial Preservation Act forbids the removal or alteration of monuments and memorials — including a memorial street or memorial building — that have stood for more than 40 years. While the law does not specifically mention memorials to the Confederacy, lawmakers approved the measure in 2017 as some cities began taking down Confederate monuments. Violations carry a $25,000 fine.
Mike Lewis, a spokesman for Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, declined to comment on the letter to the city. This is the first time the law is being used regarding a street name change, he said.
The all-Republican Alabama Supreme Court in 2019 reversed a circuit judge’s ruling that declared the law an unconstitutional violation of the free speech rights of local communities.
Reed said they knew this was a possibility when the city renamed the street. Donors from across the country have offered to pay the fine for the city. He said they are also considering taking the matter to court.
“The other question we have to answer is: Should we pay the fine when we see it as an unjust law?" Reed said. “We’re certainly considering taking the matter to court because it takes away home rule for municipalities.”
Alabama’s capital city is sometimes referred to as the “Cradle of the Confederacy” because it is where representatives of states met in 1861 to form the Confederacy, and the city served as the first Confederate capital. The city also played a key role in the civil rights movement — including the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Montgomery County school system has voted to rename high schools named for Davis and Confederate General Robert E. Lee — although the names have not yet been changed.
Several cities have just opted to take down Confederate monuments and pay the $25,000 fine. The state recently collected a $25,000 fine after suing officials in Huntsville, where the county removed a Confederate memorial outside the county courthouse last year.
Marshall last year issued a video message chiding local officials that they are breaking the law with monument removals.