Abhinav S. Krishnan, USA Today, August 17, 2023
For over a century, a life-size statue of a Confederate soldier has stood atop a towering monument in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
The city administrator had considered removing the monument for years. Then the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by white police officers in Minneapolis in 2020 ignited a national conversation about Confederate monuments and sparked new calls to take it down. A local construction company even offered to help.
“This statue is a clear and present ode to the values of the Confederacy that we do not share,” residents wrote in a petition to the city.
But before local leaders could decide its fate, the Arkansas Legislature revoked their power.
Citing the “vandalism” of monuments, Republican state lawmakers passed a law in 2021 that prevents Fort Smith from removing its monument and supplants local control over dozens of other statues across the state.
Arkansas is one of many Southern states that have passed historic preservation laws to strip local leaders of the power to take down Confederate monuments in their communities. Bills in former Confederate states such as Texas and Florida were introduced in Republican-controlled legislatures this year. Now, similar bills are appearing in states that were not part of the Confederacy, including New York and Pennsylvania.
In the past decade, a USA TODAY review found, legislators in at least 20 states have proposed more than 100 bills that would limit changes to hundreds of Confederate monuments across the United States. Some of these “statue statutes” propose harsh financial penalties or even criminal charges against municipalities that remove monuments. Others would create complex approval systems that ultimately let state leaders decide the fate of monuments.
Attorneys, researchers, and legal experts say such laws don’t just affect cities’ control over monuments – they are part of a larger attempt to erode the power of blue cities in red states.
Six states have passed laws in the past decade to prevent the removal, renaming or relocation of historic monuments: Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Ohio and, most recently, Arkansas. Mississippi and South Carolina have had such laws for decades.
USA TODAY found that at least 117 bills that would limit local control over monuments have been introduced since 2013. Four in 5 bills about protecting historic monuments and memorials were introduced in Southern states. But such efforts are not limited to states that belonged to the former Confederacy.
Earlier this year, Republican legislators in New York introduced the Veterans’ Memorials Preservation Act to protect monuments constructed to honor veterans of any conflict or war engaged in by a state of the United States. Attempts to introduce the act in 2013 and 2015 had stalled in the New York Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, and it’s possible the most recent bill may suffer the same fate.
A similar proposal has appeared repeatedly in Pennsylvania’s State Senate. While Democratic lawmakers called for the removal of Confederate monuments in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, Republican lawmakers tried to require legislative approval to take down monuments. The bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where two similar bills have died.
In West Virginia, Republican lawmakers have introduced more than a dozen bills since 2016 to prohibit altering or removing any monuments on public property. The state is home to just nine memorials, compared with more than 100 in neighboring Virginia, according to Southern Poverty Law Center data last updated in 2022. West Virginia broke away from Virginia during the Civil War, in part in opposition to slavery.
The proposed laws would give the power to issue permits for alterations to the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office – a state agency overseen by an unelected official directly appointed by the governor.
Although Idaho and Oklahoma did not become states until after the Civil War, legislators in both have tried to prohibit monument removal or relocations. Like West Virginia, the bills grant historical commissions the ability to unilaterally determine the fate of Confederate monuments on public property.
That’s a model Tennessee legislators pioneered when they passed the state’s Heritage Protection Act in 2013. It prohibits removing monuments on public property but grants the nine-member Tennessee Monuments and Memorials Commission the power to make exceptions.
The city of Memphis circumvented the Heritage Protection Act by transferring possession of a monument to a nonprofit, which promptly dismantled it in 2017. Afterward, legislators threatened to impose new rules that would withhold state funding from public entities that sell memorials without approval.
State legislators have also repeatedly tried to hold public officials directly accountable for monument removal by making violations a felony and an impeachable offense.
Those bills failed in the Tennessee Senate, but Republican legislators continue to push for restrictions. A bill now under consideration would impose a fine of $10,000 a day on public officials who participate in the removal or renaming of a monument or building.
Some cities, like Memphis, have circumvented rules by selling monuments to nonprofits and adding signs to explain the statues in the context of history.
Others have openly defied monument protection acts. A mayor in North Carolina livestreamed the demolition of a Confederate memorial in defiance of state law. Birmingham, Alabama, obscured and eventually removed an obelisk despite threats and fines from the state. Protesters at the University of North Carolina toppled a Confederate statue when university officials ignored calls to dismantle the monument.
Cities also are testing novel legal strategies in monument removal cases. Some lawyers portray the protests that monuments attract as a public safety concern that justifies taking them down. Others may argue that the presence of a monument violates residents’ right to a safe workplace. And courts have overturned some laws for unconstitutionally restricting the speech of towns and cities.