Wrestling with History and Memory in the Public Sphere

Mobile, Alabama, is a city with an abundance of statuary. Scattered around the perimeter of the city’s center, there are no fewer than a dozen monuments of bronze, marble, and granite commemorating towering figures of its three-hundred-year history. Near the waterfront, a bronze likeness of Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, the French military strategist who first claimed the region for the Empire. The statue gazes toward the open water, in the direction of Havana, where he died, where a duplicate statue resides. In a nearby park stands a stone statue of Bernardo Vicente de Gálvez, who in 1780 led forces in a successful, direct assault on Mobile, which was then controlled by the British.

Among the Civil War-era monuments in Mobile, the statues of Admiral Raphael Semmes and Father Abram Ryan are the most notable. Contemporaries heralded Ryan, a Roman Catholic, as the “poet-priest of the Confederacy.” His popular poem on the Confederate Flag, “The Conquered Banner,” includes these words about the symbol of the vanquished cause: “Furl it, fold it, it is best: For there’s not a man to wave it, And there’s not a sword to save it….” His statue off Broad Street portrays him in priestly attire, his cloak furled back, hands open wide. Busy passersby might rightly confuse it for a statue of a magician.

The statue of Semmes occupies a more prominent place. The bronze statue of the captain of the Confederate raider Alabama stands atop the entrance to the underwater traffic tunnel connecting Mobile to a long causeway which crosses upper Mobile Bay. Erected at the turn of the twentieth century, toppled by hurricanes, and relocated by urban renewal, the grizzled statue long ago assumed a deep patina, which was accelerated greatly by the application of a chemical meant to preserve it in the 1990s. More than a few people refer to the Semmes statue, at least in private, as “the little green man.”

About a mile farther west, along a trapezoidal greenspace between two major thoroughfares, sits an altogether different kind of public memorial called Unity Point Park. Touted as Mobile’s Civil Rights Memorial, the park commemorates the partnership between two of the city’s most celebrated twentieth century leaders, Joseph N. Langan, a longtime local politician, and civil rights activist John L. LeFlore. An imposing, bronze statue of the two men sits atop a seven-foot pedestal in the park’s center. They are depicted at the height of their careers, dressed in 1950s-style suits, standing shoulder-to-shoulder shaking hands, both intently gazing in the direction of City Hall, several blocks to the east.

It would be quite difficult to overlook the overt message of biracial cooperation in Unity Point, its underlying sense of southern propriety, or the place both men hold in the city’s preferred narrative of itself. The opening line of the monument’s panel quotes the Psalmist: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” Water flows over the statue’s base, which is engraved with carefully chosen quotes from both men which reinforce the park’s message. “You love your God and you love your neighbor,” reads the first quote from Langan, underscoring how devout Catholicism informed his public life. “So, if you love your neighbor you’ve got to see that he has the same rights as you have.” One John LeFlore’s quote stresses the necessity of biracial cooperation: “Blacks, in our estimation, must remember that they have not carried the ball alone.”

Marketing strategies and public policies often have messy intersections. But the history of the creation of Unity Point represents a melding of both in Alabama’s Port City, specifically to a time in the mid-1990s when the city’s white mayor sought to bridge differences with African American members of the city council by harkening back to the halcyon days of the partnership between Langan and LeFlore. It didn’t quite work and the statue was packed away for several years and finally erected in 2009. There was a deeper, more nuanced history informing the acrimony.

A few blocks west of Unity Point Park there is another civil rights monument, one decidedly less august than the arresting statues of Langan and LeFlore: An unassuming historical marker noting the tree where, in the spring of 1981, two Mobile Klansmen hung the body of nineteen- year-old Michael Anthony Donald, chosen at random and murdered, his lifeless body displayed in the tree, as an act of retaliation for the acquittal of a black man charged with killing a white Birmingham police officer. The case was relocated to Mobile because of pretrial publicity. Politicians and boosters maintained that Donald’s slaying was an isolated incident. In reality, the brutal act came near the end of a twenty-year period of often violent white reaction in response to rising African American political power in the city.

Shortly after my wife and I moved to Mobile in 2005, I decided to write my master’s thesis on the Donald murder, feeling, as I still do, that the story of his brutal death, and the dogged pursuit of the men who killed him, remains one of the most unjustly neglected stories of the civil rights movement. As I looked more deeply into Mobile’s racial history I found a more serious reason for the omission: Broadly, the truncated chronology of the conventional “Montgomery to Memphis” narrative, which bookends the significant events of the modern-day movement between the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and, more importantly, the persistent notion of Mobile’s respectable racial past, which classified the Donald murder an outlier, an isolated event rather than a culmination of long-lived grievances.

The murder of Michael Donald is the most persistent – some might say inconvenient – contrast to the accepted narrative of the Mobile movement that is so well-represented by the message of Unity Point. There may be no greater illustration of Mobile’s complex racial history than these two memorials: the one the community has chosen to highlight and the one many would just as soon forget.

It’s easy to see why Unity Point has become the more acceptable narrative. In a city where biracial government had existed since only 1985, the story of John LeFlore and Joseph Langan quickly became the very definition of a usable past, a history from which political leaders and boosters, both black and white, could summon at will and claim for their own immediate purposes. In doing so, however, Langan and LeFlore are transformed into something other than themselves. They are no longer the astute political actors the historical record reveals them to be, both well aware of their roles, their different constituencies, and the unseen lines that circumscribed their relationship with one another. In this narrative, they become more beneficent than pragmatic. This is not to suggest that the contributions of both men were not significant and long lasting. They undeniably were. But, like all men, theirs were feet of clay, not granite or bronze, and part of a much greater cast of actors, black and white, men and women, native Mobilian and “outside agitators,” who struggled mightily against the status quo for the entirety of the twentieth century and beyond. One African American woman I knew, whose parents worked alongside John LeFlore in both the Mobile NAACP and a grassroots group he later founded, told me the sight of the monument made her physically ill; she would avoid driving by it whenever possible. To her, and many others, Unity Point is a “status quo monument,” not a civil rights monument.

But the respectable narrative represented in the statue of the two men is deeply ingrained, and like the statue of Semmes, bears its own retractable patina. In the decade I lived in Mobile, I participated in numerous panels, workshops, and conferences calling for a more complete telling of the city’s racial history, including a partnership with the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Center, which highlighted several cases of racial injustice in the post-World War II era. We were a small but committed group, very few of us born in the city, a fact of which we were frequently reminded; had we but been born in Mobile, we would understand the contrast between the Port City and Montgomery, Birmingham, or Selma. “Mobile was just different,” one observer told me, categorically dismissing a ninety-minute lecture I had just given about the history of racial violence in the city of his birth. “We had Langan. We had LeFlore. We were a cosmopolitan, respectable place.”

The marker noting the tree where Michael Donald’s body hung was part of the most substantial Mobile history/memory project in which I participated. One day as I labored in the basement archives of the University of South Alabama, Dora Franklin Finley came in requesting photos of notable black Mobilians for her newest project: an African American history trail. When I told her about my research, she instantly recruited me (which is to put it mildly) into her efforts, claiming me as her research assistant and installing me on her board of directors, where I served for four years.

None could doubt Dora’s compassion, or her native-born bona fides. Her maternal grandfather was a prominent physician, her father a pharmacist. Both were active in social justice. From her well-appointed house on South Lawrence Street in downtown Mobile, Dora could point to the spot where she at the age of sixteen, her mother, and hundreds of black Mobilians were arrested in 1969 during protests in front of the city’s newly constructed municipal auditorium. The city hired black workers only as custodians for the entertainment facility, refusing applications for African American managers and ticket takers, all while making thousands of dollars from concert goers to so-called “Black Acts” like James Brown and the Jackson Five. The successful boycott and protest lasted for months.

After a harried night in the jail’s solitary confinement unit, stacked like cordwood with more than a dozen other frightened youngsters, Dora emerged and ran into her father’s arms. He wiped away her tears, steadied her young, frightened shoulders, and bestowed upon her an important lesson. “Don’t ever let them see you cry. Don’t let them know they can break your spirit.”

Her own activism, and the deep well of family history from which she could draw, ignited in Dora the indomitable political will to make the trail a reality. Funds were difficult to secure. One of the city’s black councilmen allocated a few thousand dollars from his discretionary fund for the initial markers. They were smaller than the standard marker to maximize every penny. Over the course of three years, the markers continued to appear, honoring African American notables, important buildings, and events. Soon there were thirty markers and a website, and Dora began offering bus tours to tourists and local schoolchildren. I can still hear her sonorous voice saying, “You don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.” She recited like scripture, because to her it was.

By the time the Donald marker was erected, the trail had a sense of permanence to it, including a coalition with the old city’s historic development commission. Funding remained an issue, particularly for a marker with such weighty subject matter. We approached Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center – who in the name of Michael Donald’s family sued and bankrupted the United Klans of America, whose members had carried out the murder. They paid for the marker beneath the tree. It was dedicated on a cold January day in 2009, along with two other markers on slavery in the city, thus tapping into the vein Mobile’s deeper racial history.

Dora left us a few years ago, after a valiant battle with cancer. The zeal with which she carved out the trail thrives through members of her family, who have picked up her mantle and continued the trail, which now receives some annual funds from the city. Chipping away at preferred narratives is a tough business, particularly in a place like Mobile. Persistence and open, honest communication are, I think, the only correctives. One of the people I interviewed for my forthcoming book on politics and race in twentieth-century Mobile said it best: “Mobile is an old city, with old values and old ideas; slow to change, but changing slowly.”

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