The capital of Alabama is coming under fire and facing a large fine after removing a street name honoring president of the Confederacy.
Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed says replacing the Jeff Davis Avenue sign, named after Jefferson Davis, was the right thing to do. The street was renamed Fred D. Gray Avenue after the local civil rights icon in late October.
“We thought it was the right thing to do,” Reed told CNN Friday. “We want to move forward with it as we try to seek a new image for Montgomery and a new beginning, and one focused more on the economic opportunities, our investments in public education and our investments in our people in our community, as opposed to relics of the past.”
The state attorney general’s office slapped the city with a $25,000 fine in a letter dated November 5. The letter was sent to city officials saying it was a one-time fine for violating the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act of 2017.
If the city does not pay the fine, it will face a lawsuit for violating the act, according to the letter.
“We have no comment on the matter concerning the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act,” a spokesman from the Alabama attorney’s general office wrote to CNN Monday. The letter was provided to CNN by the mayor’s office.
The fine seems counterintuitive, as Confederate monuments and memorials are still coming down across the South. More than 160 Confederate symbols came down in 2020 after the killing of George Floyd prompted a national reckoning with racism, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The catch is the fine is not tied to removing a Confederate memorial. It stems from a 2017 law, which prohibits moving, removing, or renaming any memorial or monument “located on public property which has been in place for 40 years or more,” according to the Alabama Historical Commission.
It made Mayor Reed wonder what leaders are trying to preserve, he said.
“If we were changing this name from Jefferson Davis Avenue to Stonewall Jackson Avenue, would that still be an issue?” Reed said. “What are we trying to preserve here? I think those are the questions that many of our leaders at the state level have to answer.”
Another question Reed has is whether the name of a street qualifies as a monument, he said.
“This came around the time when statues were being removed from New Orleans and other cities around the country,” he said. “I think we have to really look at this from a broader context.”
The street was renamed after Gray, a prominent civil rights attorney who represented Rosa Parks after she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, according to his law firm’s website. He also represented Martin Luther King, Jr., several times.
The unveiling ceremony of the new street took place a few yards from Gray’s childhood home October 26, according to the mayor’s office.
The process to rename the street started in December 2020 took time, according to the mayor’s office. The Montgomery City Council unanimously voted to approve the mayor’s resolution October 5, 2021.
With the city facing the hefty fine, Reed said the city is looking into ways to resolve the issue.
“We have had donors from across the country offer to pay the fine, so we would not have to spend $1 of taxpayer money for that,” he said. “We want to also make sure that we don’t have the responsibility to challenge this law for a bigger issue as it relates to what cities and municipalities have the right to do and whether or not the law truly is unjust.”
Reed said the city has not decided if it will pay the fine.
“We will continue to look at this in the broad view of how we want Montgomery to move forward and what really makes the most sense for us as a community,” he said.