When the eve of Juneteenth comes to the plaza outside the county courthouse in Florence, Alabama, this year, Camille Bennett and her committed group of social justice activists will be dancing.
This plaza may seem an unlikely place for celebration, overshadowed as it is by a 20-foot-tall Confederate monument erected at the height of the Jim Crow era. But dancing is joy, and joy is power, says Bennett. That’s why, as the weekend marking the end of slavery in the United States 156 years ago begins, the group plans to fill the public space in their predominantly white city with rejoicing, in defiance of the statue that brings so much pain.
One might argue that Bennett and the movement she founded in 2014, Project Say Something, don’t have a lot to celebrate. Since they began their push first to broaden the historically white-centered narrative of their community to incorporate the dark underpinnings of its history and then to relocate the statue, they have endured threats of violence, racist online messages and counter-protesters waving Confederate flags. A local white pastor suggested in 2020 that Bennett’s mouth should be wired shut. And at an LGBTQ Pride event in 2017, five members of the Ku Klux Klan wearing hoods and robes showed up while Bennett was speaking. She was the only Black speaker at the event.
But none of that will stop the dancing.
“We really wanted to make sure the focus was joy,” Bennett said of the celebration she is leading June 18, the evening before the Juneteenth holiday, which became a federal holiday this week. “The statue is a piece of stone, and we want it to go. But the point is not the statue, it’s the false story it tells, that erases our own stories. We are not going to let that happen. On Juneteenth we will be dancing in the streets. We will fill that space with Black culture and Black joy.”
That sentiment is suffusing Juneteenth celebrations around the country this year. The holiday marks June 19, 1865, when Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, about two months after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia, to tell enslaved Black people that the Civil War had ended and they were free. Granger’s announcement put into effect the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been issued more than two-and-a-half years earlier by President Abraham Lincoln.
Before President Biden signed a bill Thursday establishing Juneteenth National Independence Day as a federal holiday, it had increasingly been recognized officially by state governments. The holiday evolved into a celebration “of Black dignity, of resilience and of joy,” said Robert Luckett, a history professor at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi. Because it commemorates not only a day of liberation, but the courage of enslaved people who fought for their own freedom during the Civil War, it is widely evoked today as the ideal moment to celebrate the courage of Black people working to eradicate white supremacy and racism, and to topple monuments and other symbols that deny the persistence of both.
The pace of that movement has snowballed since the killing of George Floyd, the 46-year-old Black man murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020. In the months following his death, thousands of people around the United States poured onto the streets in protest and Floyd’s name – as well as the names of others slain at the hands of police – became rallying cries for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Juneteenth over the last 150 years has become a marker of Black humanity, of accomplishment, of the capacity to achieve despite overwhelming odds,” Luckett said. “Especially if we look at this past year since the murder of George Floyd and this continued assault on Black communities, even amid the grief, what we find is a resistance, a resilience and a continued joy that is worth celebrating.”
Along with the waves of change, Confederate monuments have come down across the country. The Southern Poverty Law Center has been in the forefront of the fight to remove such monuments and markers, supporting community efforts and making recommendations on a systemic level for the military to address its own history of honoring Confederate figures, said Susan Corke, director of the SPLC Intelligence Project, which tracks and exposes the activities of hate groups and other far-right extremists. And change is afoot. Researchers for the SPLC have determined that more than 160 such monuments were taken down around the country last year, compared to just 58 between 2015 and 2019.
This month the Charlottesville City Council in Virginia voted unanimously to remove two statues of Confederate generals in its parks from public display. One is a statue of Lee that was the focal point for the racist “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017.
In the Shoals, a pocket of northwestern Alabama that includes the cities of Florence, Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia and Sheffield, change comes slowly.
The area is the birthplace of Helen Keller and blues great W.C. Handy, and is proud of its strong tradition of music. But it is also predominantly white and deeply conservative. The League of the South, a white nationalist, neo-Confederate organization that attended the Charlottesville rally, is headquartered in Lauderdale County. The Klan has had a sustained presence in the area and tried to establish a headquarters in Tuscumbia in the early 1980s.
Into that challenging environment stepped Bennett, a local businesswoman who was moved to found Project Say Something after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The project, she said, began with community discussions about racism and race relations. It soon evolved into a vehicle for reclaiming local Black history by gathering oral narratives and artifacts from Black community elders and posting them on a website.
When the national conversation began coalescing around a movement to rid public spaces of Confederate monuments, Bennett said Project Say Something began pressing city and county officials to confront the history of the monument in front of the Lauderdale County Court House, a marble rendition of an anonymous Confederate soldier.
In a letter to city officials, Project Say Something cited the speech read at the dedication of the monument on April 25, 1903. In a section lambasting the goals of Lincoln’s army, the speech reads, “Their civilization differs from ours in one essential that creates an impassable barrier. They look upon a Negro as a white man with a colored skin and believe education to be the one thing needful. We of the South know better. No other people know him so well or love him so well, but nowhere here is he accorded social equality. When the highest representative of Northern civilization invites the highest representative of negro civilization to sit at his table as his social equal, he digs a gulf between us too wide and deep for us to go to them or for them to come to us.”
Mindful that local officials would be reluctant to remove the statue despite its white supremacist history, Project Say Something first proposed erecting alongside the monument a statue of Dred Scott, the enslaved man whose legal bid to gain freedom was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857, outraging abolitionists and ramping up the pressure that built to the Civil War. Scott lived for about a decade in the Shoals area.
When the county turned down that proposal, Bennett called for relocating the monument to a Confederate cemetery nearby. But the five members of the Lauderdale County Commission, all white and male, rejected that proposal as well. They cited a 2017 Alabama law prohibiting the relocation or removal of monuments. The law was passed in response to the very movement that Project Say Something embraces.
After the murder of Floyd, the organization accelerated its efforts to get officials to move the monument, holding peaceful protests around the statue five days a week for 29 weeks.
Last October, the Florence City Council unanimously voted to back moving the statue to the cemetery. And the next month Florence elected a new mayor, Andy Betterton, on a promise to relocate the statue. But because the monument sits on county property, the city says it needs county approval to move it. And a lawsuit filed in July 2020 by three Lauderdale County residents demanding the statue remain where it is has put legal constraints on the city’s ability to take any action.
Amid all the legal and political turmoil, the statue remains. But with the same spirit of vibrant resistance that has marked her efforts from the beginning, Bennett says she will be dancing around it this month.
“A lot of the time when you do this work, people see us just as sad people begging for the monument to be moved. But that’s not what we are,” Bennett said. “We think it’s important to really celebrate our culture and way of life. We have to, because if we don’t, our stories will be erased just like the people who put up this statue wanted them to be.”
To learn more about Project Say Something’s effort to remove the monument in Florence, Alabama, the story is featured in the SPLC’s Sounds Like Hate podcast episode Monumental Problems: Part I.
Photo at top: Camille Bennett in front of the Florence, Alabama, courthouse. Credit: Edward Badham.