‘Courage can be Contagious’: Local activists lead an impassioned movement to rename schools honoring Confederate leaders
The four women – Marché Johnson, Khadidah Stone, Kayla Vinson (no relation to author) and Amerika Blair – had spent almost two months preparing for the Montgomery, Alabama, school board meeting, and when the day finally arrived, they were ready.
They had only one purpose that evening: Convince the school board to remove the names of Confederate leaders from three schools in a state whose license plates still bear the phrase, “Heart of Dixie.”
For decades, multiple efforts had been made to rename the schools, to no avail. But in the July meeting, Blair and Vinson spoke eloquently about why they believed the names celebrated white supremacy.
Robert E. Lee High School is named after the general who led the Confederate Army, Jefferson Davis High School is named after the president of the Confederacy, and Sidney Lanier High School bears the name of a private in the Confederate Army.
“We cannot move forward without confronting the infrastructures that were built as a statement of white supremacy,” Blair, 28, told the school board. “We cannot move forward by memorializing a history of Black inferiority. . . . MPS (Montgomery Public Schools), I’m calling on you to stand against the legacy of white supremacy . . . and to change the name of Lee high.”
Some audience members applauded Blair’s bravery, but others remained silent.
After about three hours of debate and deliberation, the women got what they wanted: The board voted to rename the schools.
But the decision wasn’t unanimous or without controversy. Board member Dr. Lesa Keith voted against each measure.
After the public comment section ended, Keith – who had taught psychology to Blair at Lee High School – said, “History is not here for us to like it or dislike it. It is here for us to learn from it. And I heard you and most of you are offended by it. … But it’s a good thing to be offended. Because that means that we will never repeat it. And if we keep on like this, you’re going to have someone out there, some crazy person … it can be white, it can be black and can be some other race, but something stupid is gonna happen. And whatever race it happens to be, we’re all gonna be blamed for it. … It’s not your history, it’s all of our history.”
Blair quickly stood up, demanding to know why Keith hadn’t taught her the truth about Lee when she was in Keith’s classroom.
Then, Keith shouted, “All lives matter!”
In response, several people in the audience yelled, “Black lives matter” – invoking the movement against racial injustice and police brutality – and left the meeting. Blair was among them.
“I wasn’t taught my history,” Blair later told the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “I never knew who Gen. Lee was. If all lives matter, then make sure you don’t control the narrative to where you are memorializing people who did not believe in the humanity of Black people. It’s insulting.”
Vinson said that Keith’s words – and the words of other citizens who didn’t agree with renaming the schools – were difficult to hear. Rather than speaking of “erasing history,” she said the women’s duty as leaders of the movement was to face history.
“While we claim to be a democracy with equal justice for all, we haven’t been,” Vinson, 31, said. “Facing our history means facing the fact that we haven’t treated everyone with equity.”
During the meeting, as concerned citizens gathered to voice their opinions over renaming the schools, there was tension in the air. The silence ended when school board member, Jannah Bailey, began the meeting with a call to prayer. Evoking the words of former First Lady Michelle Obama, she said, “[H]istory has shown us that courage can be contagious, and hope can take on a life of its own.”
A movement is born
The movement to rename the schools began in June after four people removed a statue of Lee from Lee High School amid national protests following the murders of Black people by police and calls for the removal of Confederate symbols.
The women were in communication with Southerners on new Ground (SONG), an advocacy group of which they are all affiliated, and Montgomery Bail Out as the organizations helped secure the release of the people charged with the statue’s removal.
During a Zoom call, Blair, Johnson, Vinson and Stone – who had all met one another over the last couple of years through shared professional circles – joined forces to build a campaign to rename the schools so no other student would have to walk onto a campus named after a white supremacist.
“We thought, ‘What’s next?’” Johnson, a 2003 graduate of Lee High School, said. “We were in the heat of the moment, and within two days we were making phone calls to see what we could do.”
The women galvanized wide support to rename the schools with Lee High School alumni and local members of SONG. Through thoughtful leadership and grassroots organizing, they also got the backing of current students. Within a week, the campaign was in full swing thanks to social media, word of mouth and outreach to key community leaders.
“For so long, we’ve just been riding a wave,” Johnson said. “Nobody has said too much. Most Alabamians are so conservative. But we all agreed that these efforts were necessary, that they had to happen. I’m pretty sure more people care about what happens to future generations than those who don’t. If not, you’re a part of the problem.”
Initially, many of Montgomery’s citizens thought the movement centered solely on Lee High School. But the women stressed that the goal was to rename all three schools, in order to achieve equity for all students.
“We had passion,” Johnson said. “We were all of one accord. The movement isn’t about just Lee high. If we want equity, the movement is for all schools. We could’ve strictly focused on Lee high, but what would that gain for our city?”
As the movement progressed, the women hoped that the community and the Montgomery school board would agree that this change was long overdue.
Reconciling with the truth
Public comments at the July 14 meeting were limited to three minutes. When it was her turn to speak, Blair – a 2009 graduate of Lee – took to the microphone, explaining with conviction why she wished to rename her alma mater.
Vinson attended high school in Atlanta. But she, too, approached the microphone and said, “It is these three schools named after Confederate soldiers that were used to maintain white supremacy and deny Black people their constitutional rights.”
The school board – comprised of four Black women and three white women – voted on each name change separately. Keith, who is white, voted against each one. Board President Clare Weil, who is also white, voted against changing the name of Lanier, which is her alma mater.
“I’m not surprised Dr. Keith voted against the decision,” said Stone, a 2014 graduate of Lee high. “But I’m excited and look forward for more changes to come through Montgomery. We’re not making the movement about us; it’s about the community.”
As Keith protested the “erasing of history,” Board Vice President Claudia Mitchell, who is Black and voted for the name changes, calmly responded, “You wouldn’t tell a Jewish student to go to a Hitler high.”
It’s only now – 11 years after graduation – that Blair learned the truth about Gen. Lee. On her own, she discovered that Lee was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans, as he defended the South’s enslavement of millions of Black people.
“Lee was a pillar of maintaining slavery,” Blair told the SPLC. “Keith said she wanted Lee’s legacy to be remembered. But he was a brutal slave owner, who would whip slaves and then pour saltwater over their wounds. He was an oppressor.”
Just months before Lee High School got its name, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, ruled that all schools should be desegregated. Nevertheless, Lee opened as an all-white school in 1955 in defiance of the landmark ruling.
Black students began attending Lee and Lanier in the fall of 1964, and today, Lee’s student population is predominantly Black.
Blair, Johnson, Vinson and Stone said the school names have long reflected the school board’s notion that Black students are unimportant.
“It’s been an ongoing struggle for the Black community to prove their worth,” Blair said. “But when you have a school system memorializing white supremacy, you’re telling children they’re not worthy.”
When Stone learned the reality of who Lee was in the 11th grade, she said she felt that she was being mocked by attending a school that lauded racism and slavery.
“It was completely disrespectful,” Stone, 23, said. “White supremacy and the Confederacy were aligned with racist ideals. We need to be honest about these Confederate generals, and what they meant for us. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t want to know the truth. They’d rather be in a state of ignorance, because the truth hurts. But we need to reconcile with the truth.”
While all four women celebrate the victory to rename the schools, they know it’s only the first step in a larger movement to remove Confederate symbols across the city. They hope their courage will inspire others, no matter the obstacles.
“We’re not going to sit back; we’re going to propel the next generation forward,” Johnson, 35, said. “It’s our duty. We want to let them know that when it’s time to fight, fight – and stay the course.”
‘You have enough’
At the onset of the movement, Blair worried about public criticism. But in times of doubt, she took comfort in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “I do not see how we will ever solve the turbulent problem of race confronting our nation until there is an honest conversation with it and a willing search for the truth and a willingness to admit the truth when we discover it.”
Blair also leaned on the courage of Claudette Colvin, who refused to give up her seat to a white person on a bus nine months before Rosa Parks did. Colvin, Parks and Congressman John Lewis are among the people that paved the way for her, she said.
“I like to believe that the people who get it done are the ones experiencing it, not celebrities or elected officials,” she said. “If you just have passion and you have the experiences, you have enough.”
The movement has helped Stone to realize her strength – that despite how many people may disagree with her, she will stand up for what’s right.
“I don’t care what people say anymore,” she said. “I’ve grown in courage. I used to be very careful about what I said. But now I handle the truth, and I am straightforward in the way I handle it.”
As the schools are renamed, the women also plan to continue to hold elected officials accountable and demand educational equity for Montgomery schools.
“I would like to tackle the brokenness of [Montgomery Public Schools] to make sure our students get a quality education, a feeling of inclusion and resources,” Blair said. “Those are the efforts beyond the exterior.”
Johnson said that with the name change comes a time to repair old wounds.
“What we proved through this movement is that things can change,” she said. “We opened the door to go deeper and more internally. Now is the time for conversations and action to happen. It’s a healing process – and it starts with this.”
Vinson said she envisions a community guided by a sense of justice and love for one another – not in how we name things, but how we treat each other.
“This is the start of a larger conversation to make space for people to discuss how to have a meaningful life,” Vinson said. “There is enough power to go around. We can all have it, not just the privileged.”
Emboldened by the renewed confidence and sense of self-empowerment that the movement has offered her, Johnson encourages others to demand equity, even amid hurdles.
“We have a hard battle here in Alabama,” Johnson said. “For anyone in any state, there will be push back when you’re fighting for what’s right. But when you’re fighting for something bigger than you, keep going. Don’t be swayed any differently.”
Exactly how the schools will be renamed remains unclear, however.
When a predominantly white state legislature passed the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act of 2017 – a law requiring a city be fined $25,000 should a historical monument be moved or modified if it’s been in place over 40 years – controversy ensued.
Echoing statements made at the school board meeting, proponents of the bill claimed the law simply preserved Alabama’s history, so its citizens could learn from its past. But people like former Sen. Hank Sanders of Selma, Alabama, argued the new law maintained public veneration of Confederate white supremacists.
A provision of this law states that a school board can apply to waive the $25,000 fee when changing an historical name. But at this time, the MPS school board has not applied for such waivers, leaving them open to paying a fee totaling $75,000.
Meanwhile, over $50,000 has been raised by a community group to help cover costs should the board be fined. Although questions remain regarding what that renaming process would look like, the board is currently asking for input on how to best select new names for the schools.
“We need a new beginning,” Johnson said. “That’s a big part of this movement – to face the legacy of white supremacy. It has to be confronted in order to move forward.”