Is there a state that would put the names of racists above the education of Black children? Of course, there is. Guess that state… if you guessed the state of Alabama (amongst others), then you’re correct.
Sadly, the state of Alabama cares more about safeguarding the names of racist Confederates more than they do the education and positive racial identity of Black children. The Montgomery County Public School District, whose Black students make up 78% of all students, have chosen to change the name of two of its high schools. One named for Robert E. Lee, the former Confederate general and the other named for Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy.
However, the name changes came at a price… $50,000 to be exact.
It’s because of a law, the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor that requires districts or local governments to pay a fine for changing the name of a “historically significant” building or road over forty years old. The fine is $25,000. South Carolina is another state with a similar law.
There is the ability for entities to obtain a fee waiver, if they meet the requirements of the Act—to receive the approval from state government. Montgomery County Schools did not receive approval from the state to change the names and were made to pay the fine for each change. Thankfully, donations to the district were made to cover each fine.
The new school names are Dr. Percy Julian High School—named for an African American Civil Rights activist and a chemist—and JAG High School—named for Frank Johnson, a white federal district judge who ruled in favor of Parks and declared Montgomery’s segregated buses unconstitutional; the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, who co-founded with Martin Luther King, Jr. the Montgomery Improvement Association; and the Rev. Robert Graetz, a white pastor with a Black congregation who supported the Montgomery bus boycott.
Even with these changes, Alabama still has thirty schools named for Confederates, the third highest of any state. It is telling to note that the racist Lee’s name was put on the Montgomery high school after the Brown decision in 1954; Davis, the enslaver’s name was put on the Montgomery high school after the enforcement of the Brown decision in 1968. No doubt that the naming of these schools was to send a message to Black Alabamans, and the country; that white supremacy (and Black inferiority) is de facto law if not de jure.
Racism isn’t simply de facto in Alabama. It’s de jure. The preservation act is law. But not only that, so is the structure that facilitates racism as a legal construct.
According to the Gerrymandering Project at Princeton University, Alabama’s Black residents suffer. Although a red state, Black voters traditionally vote Democrat. 96% of Black voters voted for Doug Jones in 2017, 89% of all Black voters voted for Joe Biden in 2020. However, the congressional map shows major democratic strongholds in the state consolidated to one congressional district out of seven, which has the highest concentration of voting aged Black people.
As for the state legislature, both the House and Senate maps show that high urban populations, where Black people tend to vote in large numbers, are standalone districts—not co-mingled with Republican voters.
This gerrymandering explains how laws like the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act happen and the act sends an even louder message than the naming of those schools in 1954 or 1968.
The message is either you accept white supremacy or you can exchange it for more systemic racism. Because in order for a district to change a name for the purpose of no longer intimidating and oppressing Black people, they’ll have to deplete their resources; resources meant to educate children. In the case of Montgomery, Black children.
Black students represent one third of all students in Alabama schools.
Superintendent of schools Dr. Melvin J. Brown, a Black educator with twenty-four years of school administrative experience said regarding the fines,
I’m hoping that because we were able to pay it, maybe someone else won’t have to… I’m hoping they realize that funds that could help schools are paying for … legacy oppression and non-inclusion.
Black people in former Confederate territories, like Alabama, are lorded over by conservative Republican governments and are subject to laws that not only facilitate racism systemically but psychologically as a result of it. Therefore, the name of racists such as Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis will always come before the education and well-being of Black children.
Thankfully someone or some group of people were willing to pay the price for justice with their donations.
My question, why is it always Black people having to pay the price? The Superintendent hasn’t lost his job, but how has his career trajectory changed because he took a stand? $50,000 doesn’t sound like a lot of money, and thankfully donations covered the payment, but what programs could possibly get cut or whose salary could go unpaid to support a program or initiative?
The payment for securing justice shouldn’t be at the feet of those experiencing the injustice. Sadly, I suspect that won’t change so long as its Black people paying the price.