I know there are those who insist that Confederate monuments do not make any political statements, but simply represent an innocent collective recognition of the self-sacrifice of fallen soldiers, and an attempt to preserve their memory. There was a time in my life when I might have been able to believe such a thing, a time when I failed to ask some pretty basic questions.
This is the Confederate monument in the town square in Tuskegee, Alabama. The Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers (and later, Tuskegee Institute, and ultimately Tuskegee University) would eventually become one of the country’s most important institutions for higher learning for African-Americans.
The Tuskegee Normal School was established in 1881. This monument was erected in 1906.
Monuments like this were put up all over the south, not simply so that we would remember the war dead. They were put up in public places like the town square in Tuskegee as reminders to African-Americans of their place in a white supremacist regime, and as a warning to them not to forget it.
We did not see this in 1997.
We visited Tuskegee briefly, ate lunch at Thomas Reed’s Chitlin House Chicken Coop, and then visited Booker T. Washington’s grave and the “Lifting the Veil” statue on the campus of the university. But that was about it. We missed the town of Tuskegee entirely.
This time was different. We approached from a different direction, from the east. But we also approached the city from a different angle this year, more attuned than we were twenty years ago to the ways the legacy of white supremacy is written into the landscape of places like Tuskegee.
We ate in Thomas Reed’s restaurant in 1997, but I did not think then to ask about who Thomas Reed was.
I later learned that Thomas Reed once vowed to climb up the State House in Montgomery and personally remove the Confederate battle flag flying atop the white dome. Apparently the flag went mysteriously missing the night before the planned coup, and was moved to the Confederate memorial on the north side of the Capitol. Turns out the episode landed Reed both in jail and in The New York Times.
On February 3, 1988, Reed and thirteen others attempted to scale an eight-foot chain-link fence around the Capitol and purloin the flag. They were held briefly and later released on $300 bond. Reed had made the removal of the flag a personal mission. “This is just the beginning,” he said at the time. Five years later, the flag was taken down from the cupola of the Capitol. A write-up in The Chicago Tribune at the time illustrates how the debate around the flag was framed thirty years ago. It concludes with the sentence: “But the flag’s supporters argue that removing the flag is tantamount to erasing history.”
It is not difficult to see now the subtext in such reportage. This was, for many years, the final word on the subject, and where most whites were keen to leave the matter.
But not Thomas Reed. By 1988, when Reed was President of the Alabama NAACP, he had been involved in state politics for over twenty years. In 1970, he and Fred Gray, a pioneering civil rights attorney from Montgomery, became the first African-Americans to serve in the Alabama legislature since Reconstruction. Photographs of Reed in the State Archives show him on the town square in Tuskegee in 1966, campaigning to a small crowd of mostly African-American men in fedoras, hands crossed, on hips, in pockets. He stands on the tailgate of a station wagon emblazoned with signs that say, THOMAS REED, THE MAN WE NEED.