Montgomery, Alabama, seat of state government, site of the famous Bus Boycott that helped launch the Civil Rights Movement, and home to civil rights warriors like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Ralph Abernathy, is in the midst of another struggle, this time over the name of a street.
For over half a century, the west side of Montgomery sported the incongruous intersection of Jeff Davis Avenue and Rosa L. Parks Avenue. One street named for the Confederate President from Vicksburg, Mississippi, the other for a civil rights hero from Montgomery. The odd corner of Parks and Davis stood until October 26 of this year, when, at a renaming ceremony complete with speeches and a marching band, the city changed Jeff Davis Avenue to Fred D. Gray Avenue—after the intrepid civil rights lawyer who lived on that very street.
One would think this should be the end of the matter. How a city names its streets is typically a local affair, implicit in the municipal authority to open and close them, and not subject to judicial superintendence. See 10A McQuillin Mun. Corp. § 30:16 (3d ed.) (“[T]he power given a municipality to open and close streets impliedly includes the power to name and rename streets.”)
Law aside, the equities favor the city. According to the 2020 Census, Montgomery is now 60% Black; the 200-year-old city just elected its first Black mayor, Steven Reed, in 2019. To replace the name of an out-of-state white-supremacist traitor with a hometown civil rights hero seems an easy decision. As Reed stated in an NPR recording about the renaming: “We’re changing the name of someone who should never have been honored to someone [who] long ago should have been recognized and honored not just by this city but by this state and this nation.”
But, this being the South where, as William Faulkner noted, the past isn’t really ever past, the city is now being told it must pay a $25,000 fine for renaming the street or the Republican Attorney General will file suit. The authority for this punitive measure comes from Alabama’s Memorial Preservation Act, passed by the overwhelmingly Republican legislature in 2017, as a reaction to the dismantling of Confederate monuments in several locations around the nation. Section 41-9-232(b) of that act generally prevents the renaming of “memorial streets” and § 41-9-235(d) empowers the Attorney General to collect $25,000 per violation.
This isn’t the first time that the African American political leadership of a predominantly African American city has balked at maintaining monuments to white supremacy and treason in their midst. For a brief moment, a state trial court in Alabama held that the Memorial Preservation Act violated the First Amendment rights of the City of Birmingham, which wanted to obscure a century-old monument to Confederate veterans. That opinion was unanimously overturned by the Alabama Supreme Court in November of 2019, on familiar (and perhaps overstated) grounds that municipal corporations are powerless to interpose constitutional rights against the states that create them.
Armed with this opinion, the Attorney General is on firm legal ground if he decides to move against Montgomery. Other municipalities in Alabama have justified paying the fine as a relatively minor cost of ridding themselves of these noxious symbols and magnets for civil unrest. That they must pay this fine is shame. That Republicans—the Party of Lincoln—make them pay is a disgrace.