A car crash topples a Confederate statue and forces a Southern town to confront its past

After the fall

When a crash toppled a Confederate statue, a Southern town — half black, half white — collided with its past

Published on July 20, 2017

About 3:30 a.m. on a Saturday last July, an on-duty patrol car with the Demopolis, Ala., Police Department proceeded along North Main Avenue toward West Capitol Street. It was a clear night, and nothing much was going on. There hadn’t been an arrest for two days, and that had been for misdemeanor theft from a supermarket. The squad car rolled past the bank and the power company on the left , the town square on the right. Up ahead, in the center of the intersection, loomed a monument: a marble statue of a soldier, not quite life-size, elevated about a dozen feet on a granite pedestal. He was gazing south, toward the oncoming patrol car. The butt of his upturned rifle rested at his boots; a blanket roll was draped over his left shoulder. Negotiating the intersection required a slight swerve around the monument — but the police officer crashed straight into it. The impact of the Dodge Charger broke off the soldier at the shins and put him on his back amid the shrubs and flowers around the monument. His cropped boots remained on the pedestal. Undamaged was the inscription on the base: “Our Confederate Dead.”

A sign at the outskirts of Demopolis announces “City of the People,” a translation of the town’s name from the ancient Greek. The population numbers 7,020 — 50 percent black, 47 percent white — which is enough to make it the largest city in Marengo County. This is the western part of Alabama’s Black Belt, so named for its rich soil, but also intimately associated with the enslaved people who worked the cotton fields, then stayed on as free tenant farmers, and whose descendants drove the struggle for civil rights. Symbols of liberation and lost causes are everywhere, telling rival stories, like the Greek Revival plantation houses, with their white columns and pediments out front, and their former slave cabins calling quietly from the back.

Following the crash, the lieutenant on duty woke up Chief Tommie Reese, who responded to the scene. The chief, in turn, rousted Mayor Mike Grayson, who threw on a pair of shorts and hurried the few blocks from his house. Grayson, 65, who is white, was silently praying the act wasn’t intentional. According to family lore, his grandmother, as treasurer for the Marengo Rifles Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, wrote the check to pay for the monument. “The last thing I wanted to happen was Demopolis to become a battleground between the Sons [of Confederate Veterans] and the Daughters of the Confederacy and the Black Lives movement,” he said later. “We had worked too hard for too many years.”

The statue had stood at a prominent intersection in downtown Demopolis, Ala., since 1910. Here’s how it looked in 2013. (Edward Newell)

The statue had stood at a prominent intersection in downtown Demopolis, Ala., since 1910. Here’s how it looked in 2013. (Edward Newell)

Reese, 52, who is black, wanted to get the facts out as soon as possible, before conspiracy theories could propagate. The car and statue were removed quickly. As a consequence, few pictures circulated on social media, an Orwellian turn that unintentionally fueled speculation. After working the scene, Reese took a short nap. When he awoke by 9 or 10 a.m., “it was already spiraling out of control” on the Internet, he said, spurred in part by people chiming in from other parts of the country. A leading theory was that the officer was black and had been paid to take out the statue. A small, peaceful, racially diverse crowd of gawkers gathered to contemplate the pedestal that now uplifted simply a pair of Confederate ankles.

The news spread “immediately, by word of mouth,” said Annye Braxton, 84, who had participated in voting rights drives and rallies in the mid-1960s at Demopolis’s Morning Star Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke. An African American pastor at another church told me, “There was jubilation on the African American side of town.”

The white side of town was conflicted. There was a faction that saw an opportunity to tell a new story about Demopolis, and another that wanted to dig in to defend an older version. The night the statue was knocked down, David McCants, 68, who came within two votes of winning a council seat last election, and his twin brother, Dana, had been preoccupied with news coverage of attempts to remove Confederate symbols in other parts of the country. That prospect offended them. Then, in­cred­ibly, Demopolis lost its soldier in a single stroke. “Hitting that statue would be hard to do; you would have to work at getting to the statue,” David said later. Dana insisted, “He hit the statue on purpose. Ain’t no way to tell what they paid him.”

Confounding the battle lines was one inconvenient fact that everyone, black and white, could agree on: Until that Saturday morning a year ago, the soldier had stood guard almost entirely without controversy. Nobody protested him, nobody celebrated him. It was only after he was gone that he mattered.

Within days Reese announced the findings of an internal investigation, based on drug and alcohol tests, security camera footage and GPS data: The officer fell asleep at the wheel. He hit the statue at about 25 to 30 miles per hour. The car was totaled; the driver was lucky to be unhurt. To protect the officer’s safety, Reese refused to release his name — or his race.

Now Demopolis faced a dilemma. Could such an act of God, chance or negligence be allowed to stand? As cities around the country wrestled with whether to take down their Confederate monuments, Demopolis had to decide whether to put its soldier back up.

Family members watch the graduation ceremony at Demopolis High School in May. Public school integration was a success in Demopolis, unlike in some surrounding communities where many white students attend private academies.

The Southern Poverty Law Center counts more than 700 Confederate monuments and statues on public property, mainly across the South. The push to remove or rethink them gained momentum two years ago, when Dylann Roof, who killed nine parishioners in a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., proved to have a fondness for Confederate iconography.

But the stone and bronze soldiers do not go gently. This past spring in New Orleans, statues of Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis were taken down amid dueling rallies, vigils and several arrests. Earlier this month in Charlottesville, 30 Ku Klux Klansmen rallied to protest the City Council’s vote to remove a statue of Lee from a city park. For now, the Charlottesville council’s decision has been enjoined by a court order. Efforts to remove Confederate statues in Alexandria and Leesburg have stalled as well. Richmond’s mayor recently called for new signage or statues to expose the “false narrative” of that city’s Confederate statues that “lionize the architects and defenders of slavery.” Monuments in Baltimore and Rockville have come under scrutiny, and debates are playing out in communities in Kentucky, Florida, Missouri and elsewhere.

Demopolis has a population of about 7,000. Most whites live on the west side, most blacks on the east. The downtown features historic buildings.

Demopolis’s statue was erected in 1910, during a wave of post-Reconstruction Confederate memorialization that produced most of the monuments in contention today. Groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy led the effort. It was a time when Southern whites were reasserting their supremacy following a burst of African American empowerment after the Civil War. With their location in prominent public spaces, the monuments stood as reminders of who still ruled the South. Some of the statues were mass-produced. The Demopolis piece — a generic soldier, meant as a tribute to all Confederate dead — was sculpted in a pose seen in statues from Statesboro, Ga., to Star City, Ark., to Durant, Okla.

Sixty Confederate veterans and thousands of people attended the dedication in October 1910. The statue was draped in the colors of the Confederate flag. The crowd sang “Dixie.” “An excellent barbecued dinner was served by the good people of Demopolis, who always seem glad of an occasion to honor and entertain those old heroes of the Confederacy,” a newspaper reported. “This monument … will stand as a reminder to every old soldier who passes that way that his comrades of the dark days are still remembered.”

Mike Grayson was the mayor when the accident occured. He called for a committee to be formed to study how the memorial should be restored.

Hours after the soldier fell, Mayor Grayson posted an invitation on Facebook for residents to turn out for a mass prayer vigil in the name of unity at the broken monument. He was quickly talked out of that idea by other city leaders, who thought such a gathering would only inflame the issue. He then called for a committee of civic and business leaders — six white and six black — to study the matter. The move effectively allowed Demopolis to slip into its summer local political campaign season without the statue playing a central role on Election Day in late August.

Grayson lost reelection to John Laney, the former manager of the local cement plant. Through the fall, supporters of the statue assumed it would be fixed as a matter of course, while opponents figured the committee was working toward an alternative. But the committee never got around to formally recommending anything to the City Council. By December, nothing had been done, except removing the ankles from the pedestal.

A January council meeting was when the community’s conversation about the statue began in earnest. More than 40 people attended, filling Rooster Hall — so named for the great rooster auction of 1919 that helped pay for a vital bridge. The council members and mayor sat around an oval wooden table. African American men represent two districts that are predominantly black. White men represent two districts that are predominantly white. A white man represents an evenly split swing district. Mayor Laney, who is white, has the sixth vote.

One by one, people approached to within a few feet of the table to argue for and against the Confederate soldier. Chief Reese had posted extra officers, but they weren’t needed. As strong as the convictions were on both sides, they were expressed in a tone of mutual respect, according to Stewart Gwin, a co-owner of the West Alabama Watchman news website, who wrote a detailed account of the meeting.

“I understand that in the eyes of some people, really all of us, that that was an unsavory time and there were some horrible things done,” said a man who wanted the statue restored. “However, if you erase history, what are the chances of the next generation remembering?”

“We are the City of the People, and that’s all people, not just one people,” said a woman against the restoration.

Patricia Godwin, president of Selma Chapter 53 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, came to defend the statue since the UDC chapter in Demopolis that had paid for it disbanded in the 1970s. “That monument was put here as a gift in the spirit that after [Confederate soldiers] were gone, that monument would remain,” she said, later adding: “Be proud of your history.”

But whose history would hold sway? Laney touched on a truth about Demopolis that wasn’t often admitted aloud. “We’ve got a city of 7,800, but it’s essentially two cities of 3,900 because the demographics is such that we don’t work together,” he said. “We need to do things to change that.”

At the end of the evening, the council decided it was not yet the time to decide. The members voted unanimously to reconvene the committee and direct it to mull the matter for a few more months.

An empty pedestal remains. The community has wrestled with how to repair the monument.

Most white residents still live on the west side of town, where in some sections hundred-year-old homes are wrapped with porches and hung with gables. Dwellings are more modest on the east side, including public housing in the form of brick ranch houses whose stoops have brick columns and pediments that jarringly echo the facade of Gaineswood, the nearby plantation manor museum.

Demopolis was founded 200 years ago by fugitive French comrades of the exiled Napoleon, and it was named for a democratic ideal. Residents take pride in the fact that, during school desegregation in the middle of the 20th century, Demopolis distinguished itself from many of its Black Belt neighbors. Black children and white children were funneled into the same schools, and the habit took. True, an all-white private academy cropped up, but it didn’t last, unlike in other towns where private schools still drain the public schools of white children. Today, Demopolis High School’s student body is roughly as balanced as the population of the town.

Progress in Demopolis has been complicated, though: As recently as 2003, students at the high school attended separate proms. Black students would go to the sanctioned school prom; white students would be invited to a private spring formal. Yet current students can’t imagine such a practice. Instead, together they dance the night away — at Gaineswood plantation, where the big house looks exquisitely Old South in prom pictures.

Demopolis High School graduate Matt Beckum, 18, (center), poses for pictures after his graduation in May. He said there was some discussion of the statue in school, and he wanted to see it restored “because it’s a part of the town.”

The same spirit that integrated the schools carried into other aspects of civic life. “I don’t know what it is about this town, but at the end of the day, we try to make it happen, make it work,” said Charles Jones Jr., 53, an African American council member who is a high school industrial maintenance teacher and a scion of a prominent local construction business started by his grandfather. “Yeah, there’s still some socioeconomic oppression going on, but at the end of the day, in this town we try to get along. … We’ve seen the all-white town, we’ve seen the all-black town, and we don’t like either of those. We like our 50-50 mix.”

Not only is the police chief African American, so are his two predecessors, and the force is racially balanced. The fire chief and the building inspector are black. The first elected African American district attorney in Alabama history, in 1992, was a lawyer in Demopolis.

And yet, when Jones was pondering a run for mayor in the last election, he hesitated, even though he had already printed some campaign literature. Demopolis has never had a black mayor. “I sensed that the town wasn’t really ready,” he said. “Are they going to be ready in four years? We’ll see.”

Kionte Whitfield, (left), and Matthew Foxhall, both 16, scramble for a football passed by Eli Spence, not pictured, at the home of Eli's uncle, Phillip Spence. The elder Spence has been part of a movement to restore the Confederate statue.

Phillip and Debby Spence invited me over for a pork chop dinner to talk about the statue. Debby said she had prayed first on whether they should speak to an out-of-town reporter. Phillip was wearing a T-shirt printed with “Save Our Soldier,” the rally cry of a small group called the Friends of the Old Soldier. The shirt quoted Proverbs 22:28: “Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set.”

The Spences, who are white, made a point of telling me that just that afternoon their nephew and some African American teammates on the high school football team had been over to swim in the backyard pool, as they do often. After dinner, Phillip Spence, 63, an Air Force veteran, sifted through archives of century-old council meeting minutes and old photos of the monument. “Taking down the monument, to me, is equivalent to going into a cemetery and kicking over a headstone,” he said.

“A lot of the descendants of these men are still in this town, and I talk to them,” Debby Spence, 59, said. “They are hurt.”

The Spences can trace 11 ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, hailing from counties adjacent to Marengo. “John Holly Spence joined when he was 13 years old and was killed in action when he was 15,” Phillip Spence said. “He owned no slaves. They were poor farmers. And the way they looked at the war was, they were defending their homeland.” The monument, he continued, “is not anything that glorifies slavery. It’s just to remember people who died. You always want to remember your ancestors.”

The Spences’ reverence for the statue was not uncommon, especially among an older generation of whites in town. Still, in the aftermath of the statue’s fall, to hear white people wax eloquent about the old soldier was a stunning revelation for their black neighbors. “I realized what it represented to them, and then I realized what it represented to me,” said Annye Braxton, the former civil rights activist. We spoke as she was getting her hair done by Reginald Gracie at Reggie’s Salon & Boutique, a short walk from the soldier’s pedestal. “Bigotry. If we are the City of the People, it represents an exclusion of my people. And if we are the City of the People, I think we should be included in the monument. Put Dr. King up there. Put President Obama up there, along with your Confederate soldier.”

Reginald Gracie cuts the hair of Annye Braxton, 84, at Reggie’s Salon & Boutique. She marched for civil rights in Demopolis in the mid-1960s, and she did not want to see the statue restored. “All these years you say this should be a model city as far as race relations are concerned, but you want to erect the one thing that keeps us divided?”

Braxton told me that the statue had been a sideshow compared to the negative connotations she associated with the park adjacent to the monument — a village green with a little wooden carousel and a fountain. A stone marker identifies the green by the name some called it until at least 1975: Confederate Park. Now it is known as the Public Square. Until the mid-1960s, black children could not play on the merry-go-round, Braxton said, and black adults rarely ventured there unless they were taking care of white children.

As Gracie, 50, teased out Braxton’s locks, he said that because the statue had always been there, “when I see it, I don’t see it. It wasn’t like it was an issue. Then an accident occurs and you start to hear all this stuff about somebody wanted to destroy their ‘history.’ It changes the conversation, because then you find out the spirit that flows through that monument is still flowing through these people today. All these years you say this should be a model city as far as race relations are concerned, but you want to erect the one thing that keeps us divided?”

A couple of blocks from the salon, the pioneering former district attorney Barrown Lankster has his law office, one of the few buildings owned by African Americans downtown. “When I walk out of my office, I have had to look up at the statue, and it’s not a pretty sight to me,” said Lankster, 67. “It was part of the landscape of the city of Demopolis, and I expected it to be there when I was dead and gone. I was delighted when it was knocked down because I know the roots from which it stems.”

As the true feelings of African Americans about the statue began to emerge, white residents, too, found themselves surprised. “It’s been a little eye-opening,” said Kirk Brooker, 42, operations director of the Marengo County Historical Society. “I find out from African American friends that they always saw that as a symbol of hate. … I grew up three blocks from that statue, and it never represented that to me. To be perfectly honest, I drive by that every day, and I never thought about it.” He favored making the monument more inclusive without the soldier.

“To hold those military officers and folks whose monuments were taken down responsible, to put the weight on their shoulders, that’s wrong. We’ve got to accept that we were a nation of people who condoned enslaving others and not lay the burden at the feet of these Confederate officers.”

Joseph McGill

“I guess [antipathy to the statue] was there before and I just didn’t realize it,” said John Cox Webb, 74, a lumber broker. “And then, of course, in the white community there’s a group, but they’re in the minority, that are intolerant. Maybe I just had a Pollyanna attitude. I certainly hope it’s not a bigger percentage or element that’s intolerant on either side, because we need to get along. … The monument is historical — good, bad or indifferent. It’s there and should be there, as a remembrance that ‘my people were oppressed’ or that it’s honoring dead soldiers.”

Some white residents could not understand why, if the statue was such an outrage, black residents had been relatively silent about it. “I grew up 300 yards from the statue, and when I was a child I used to play on it,” said David McCants, the former council candidate. “There never was a problem until somebody ran over it. If you had hard feelings on it, why didn’t you bring it up before somebody ran over it?”

One answer is that white residents were learning that “there are some things that we suppressed,” said Jones, the black council member. Those suppressed feelings were, in essence, black people’s contribution to the shared projection of Demopolis as a town where the races got along.

I found younger people, with exceptions, less invested in the fight. In the upstairs bar of the Red Barn restaurant one Friday night, there were two birthday parties, one a group of black friends, one a group of white friends. “I know my grandparents are super upset,” said Taylor Fleming, 25, a white electrician at the cement plant, shooting 8 ball. “I’m like, eh, it is what it is. As long as something goes up there.”

Over at the birthday party with black friends, Anthony Smith, 25, a photographer, said: “Younger black people didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know it was a Confederate soldier. I didn’t know anything about it. … When they said it’s about Confederate history, wait a minute. If it stands for that, what are you trying to say?”

Phillip Spence, wearing a ''Save Our Soldier'' t-shirt, addresses the city council last month about the fate of the statue. ''Taking down the monument, to me, is equivalent to going into a cemetery and kicking over a headstone,'' he said in an interview.

After all these years, and all its progress, Demopolis’s black community was still unsure of its status in town, its influence. When it became clear the statue was cherished by some white residents, many assumed white Demopolis would never permit the city to lose its Confederate soldier. “I got some feedback from some constituents that said, ‘It looks like you guys are fighting a losing battle,’ ” said Jones, who was appointed to be the nonvoting convener of the statue committee. “ ‘We’re not going to blame you if you let ’em put it back up.’ ”

Jones thought a face-saving, peacemaking way out might be to punt to the insurance company. The statue was insured for $106,000, with a $5,000 deductible. If the fine print of the policy covered repairing the original statue and nothing else, then that was that. “I was going to make the insurance company the bad guy,” Jones told me. But the insurance company said it would pay for anything Demopolis wanted to do, within budget.

Another issue was whether the statue was reparable at all. One expert said that reattaching the statue would create a maintenance challenge forever after, according to Jones. The city’s official position was that the soldier was not reparable. Yet anything less than the original soldier would seem to undercut historical arguments for the statue. Proponents countered that even a new soldier on the big old pedestal would, by volume of stone, be more than 50 percent historical.

Finally, the committee voted by secret ballot on what to recommend to the council. The council took it up in late April. A crowd of about 40 attended the meeting, and the atmosphere in Rooster Hall was church-like. Opponents and defenders of the statue had gotten to know each other over the months. They had grown to at least understand each other’s views, if not agree with them. Now a quiet tension settled over the gathering.

Laney announced the recommendation from the committee that the council would have to vote on: Under the proposal, Demopolis would carry on without its Confederate statue — but with a twist. The soldier would be replaced by an obelisk inscribed to the memory of the dead in all wars. By implication, that would include all races as well. The soldier would be placed in the Marengo County History and Archives Museum. However, in a slightly dissonant salute to the monument’s original purpose, the granite pedestal supporting the obelisk would remain the same. It would still say “Our Confederate Dead,” and “Erected by the Marengo Rifles Chapter — United Daughters of the Confederacy — 1910.”

The roll call proceeded briskly. The two white council members from white districts voted against the proposal. The two black council members from black districts voted for the proposal. Harris Nelson, the white swing district representative, also voted for the change. Mayor Laney abstained. By a vote of 3 to 2, the Confederate statue was consigned to history.

Barrown Lankster, the former district attorney, felt “overjoyed,” but he didn’t show it. “No one celebrated, and no one was in tears,” Phillip Spence recalled. “It was almost like being in shock.” He rose slowly to his feet to address the council: “Tonight, y’all broke my heart.”

Afriye We-kandodis, with chains to symbolize slavery, rises after spending the night in a former slave cabin near Demopolis, as part of the Slave Dwelling Project. We-kandodis is founder of the By the River Center for Humanity in Selma, whose work includes taking participants through dramatizations of slavery.

A month after the council reached its decision, a man named Joseph McGill arrived in Demopolis. McGill, 55 years old and African American, is a preservationist and plantation museum docent from the Charleston area. He’s on a singular mission to sleep a night in every extant slave quarters in the country. Since he started the Slave Dwelling Project seven years ago, he has slept in 97. He found them in 19 states, including northern ones, and Washington, D.C. His purpose is to draw attention to the structures so they may be saved and to reveal the stories they have to tell. “It’s that historical trauma that we’ve been ignoring for so long, kicking the can down the road, thinking somebody else is going to handle it,” he told me after he pulled into town. “And burdening our future generations more and more.”

Mary Jones-Fitts, director of the Marengo County History and Archives Museum, had invited McGill to make presentations at the museum coinciding with the opening of “Changing America,” a traveling exhibit tracking progress from the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) to the March on Washington (1963). She also helped McGill find a slave cabin to sleep in. Jones-Fitts, who traces some of her ancestors to people enslaved on a plantation about 16 miles outside Demopolis, said her own mission is to fill in gaps in what she considers the undertold story of African Americans in Marengo County. The first time we spoke she declared: “History is a pencil without an eraser.”

McGill arrived at the museum on a Wednesday evening, puckishly wearing a Clemson baseball cap in the heart of University of Alabama territory. Three dozen people nibbled cheese and crackers at a reception before his talk. White attendees slightly outnumbered black members of the audience. Mayor Laney took a seat. McGill’s visit when Confederate statues were in the news locally and nationally was coincidental, and he didn’t address the Demopolis statue specifically. But he did challenge both sides of the national statue debate by arguing for the historical value of slave cabins and Confederate monuments. And he raised questions: Why should black history and white history be compartmentalized? Isn’t that a source of some of today’s problems? More to the point, he asked: Why should sins receive the forgiveness of forgetting? “Those folks who support Confederate monuments, they find an ally” in me, he told the museum audience. “Because I say, leave them right there. But if you leave them, you’re going to have to reinterpret them.”

Joseph McGill, founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, spends nights in former slave quarters to draw attention to what they represent. He slept in one in Greensboro, near Demopolis. He favors saving Confederate statues, but reinterpreting them, because he says they are part of history, too.

How many slaves were owned by Confederates represented in statues? he asked. Does their DNA turn up in black descendants, possible evidence of nonconsensual relationships? What was their role during the postwar rise of lynching, the Ku Klux Klan and white suppression of black aspirations?

Moreover, he said, simply taking down a statue, or not putting one back up, conveniently obscures a more collective national guilt. “I want people to know that these Confederate generals, or whatever their rank may have been, they were just defending what was passed down to them,” McGill told me later. “And you’ve got to think about who passed it down to them. Eventually you’re going to get to all those 12 slaveholding presidents” — he was including those who owned slaves while not in office — “and their roles in all this. What are we going to do then? Are we going to take the Washington Monument out of Washington, the Jefferson Memorial out of Washington?”

“This was a system that we as a nation allowed to exist,” he continued. “And to hold those military officers and folks whose monuments were taken down responsible, to put the weight on their shoulders, that’s wrong. We’ve got to accept that we were a nation of people who condoned enslaving others and not lay the burden at the feet of these Confederate officers.”

I spent that night with McGill and a group in a slave cabin behind Magnolia Grove manor, a house museum about 25 miles outside Demopolis. McGill was wearing a T-shirt that said: “I tried to keep quiet but my ancestors wouldn’t let me.” We were four whites (including me) and seven blacks, mostly strangers to each other. We unrolled our sleeping bags on the wooden floor and crawled inside as the night grew chilly. The walls were hung with copies of census lists from just before the Civil War. Slave owners were named, while their slaves were merely numbered. “I just wanted to be here and think of them and not deny they were here,” said Tonya Scott Williams, from Montgomery, Ala.

By lamplight, we talked for hours. When the subject of Confederate memorials came up, there were no simple answers. Confederates “were defending something that our Founding Fathers set up,” McGill said, picking up his theme from earlier. “They set up this country to function on chattel slavery.”

“Years ago, I wanted all those names to come down,” Williams said. “There’s something about living your entire life feeling as if you’re under attack. You’re driving down these streets named for people who enslaved your ancestors. You’re going to the schools that are named after people who enslaved your ancestors.” And yet, she continued, “I remember something that Mr. McGill said on one of the videos he’s posted that really got me thinking about leaving them there, and then putting them in context, really telling the story. You read some of these plaques, and you’ve got all this fluff about what it represented, and I just resented that. Let’s just tell the whole story. … That’s a part of the healing.”

Later, McGill posted an account of his visit. He noticed something I hadn’t, and it chagrined me: In the slave cabin, when we rolled out our sleeping bags, we formed segregated sections.

The group that spent the night in the former slave cabin and some friends form a foot-circle during a visit the next day to the Safe House Black History Museum in Greensboro.

In a way, Demopolis had been like the police officer who crashed into the monument. It had been slumbering, black residents and white residents sharing an illusion that their feelings about race and the past had been resolved. The collision with the statue woke everyone up. It became clear that the town’s respectful equilibrium — as in so many other places in America, North and South — depended, in part, on folks not inquiring too deeply about others’ attitudes on race.

As for the Confederate soldier, I found him lying faceup on a pallet in the city barn, clutching the top few inches of his rifle, the rest of which was shattered. The bottoms of his boots were set beside him. His gaze looked serene. Now it was directed not south, but upward at cases of hand sanitizer.

For unexpected reasons, he’s still in limbo. In May, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) signed a bill forbidding the altering of any public monument older than 39 years, which could reopen the debate for Demopolis. One afternoon, shortly before the governor acted, I spotted Lankster rushing to City Hall to deliver a letter arguing that the measure could not be applied retroactively to the Confederate statue. Defenders of the statue maintain that the new law indeed prevents installation of the obelisk. The council had little choice last month but to seek an opinion on the new law’s impact from the state attorney general, which is pending.

Outside the Demopolis Inn, a block from the pedestal, I found David McCants, the former council candidate, and his twin brother, Dana, talking excitedly about possible intervention from the state capital. Dana McCants said he had been trying to get through to the governor directly. “She got a black secretary,” he said. “How we going to get the statue put up? They ain’t going to pass the word on. … We’re losing the f—ing country. Somebody better stand up.”

“Watch your language,” John Cox Webb, the lumber broker, who was standing nearby, said sharply. “There’s a lady inside.”

The McCants’ views, in my experience, were an exception. Contrary to city leaders’ worst fears, there had been none of the confrontations seen in other cities. No torches, marches, white robes, arrests. The only demonstration I could verify was a man who showed up periodically to wave a Confederate flag by the pedestal, and he was from out of town.

Still, the outcome — while it dilutes the monument’s connection to the Civil War, and though it earned the support of Demopolis’s black leaders — makes no attempt to tell a larger story about the town’s history, one that would include slavery. There was only so far Demopolis was prepared to go.

Johnny Hertz, right, relaxes on a stoop in Demopolis. When he heard the Confederate statue was knocked down, he said, “I was somewhat elated, because I don't think it should've been there in the first place.”

At 35, Harris Nelson, the swing district council member, is part of a new generation. To him, it wasn’t a close question whether to restore the statue of the soldier. “I knew immediately I didn’t want to put it back up,” he said. Lankster said not bringing back the soldier marked a turning point, where some white people in power were willing to defy “many of the folks they meet with and eat with” and abandon the statue.

Phillip Spence, though disheartened by the result, felt the town had gone about the process correctly. “That’s the way all this democratic stuff should be,” he said. “To agree to disagree agreeably.” He is assembling a scrapbook as a record of the drama that he intends to donate to the city. “This was a historical moment in the city of Demopolis,” he said. “When somebody looks back on it, I want them to be able to find it.”

Before I left the Black Belt, I found the officer who toppled the soldier and set Demopolis on its path of self-examination. He’s no longer employed in town. He is African American. In a brief interview, he said the accident happened the way Chief Reese reported: He fell asleep. “I hate that it happened,” he said. “Regardless of what I say, nothing is going to change. I’d rather move on.”

And so would Demopolis. But I try to imagine what will happen if the state’s new monument law nullifies the town’s decision: Erecting the obelisk would be forbidden. Since the soldier is beyond repair, Demopolis could be left with just the granite base standing in the intersection of North Main and West Capitol — an empty pedestal to “Our Confederate Dead.” Visitors might have no choice but to ask the kinds of questions that Joseph McGill would like all of us to spend more time contemplating: Why is this memorial here? Whom does it speak for? Then the stories would come out — about what transpired in 1865 and 1910. And also what did and didn’t happen this past year.

David Montgomery is a staff writer for the magazine. Staff researchers Eddy Palanzo and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report. To comment on this story, email wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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