Alabama’s capital city of Montgomery is facing legal action or a $25,000 fine for changing the name of a street bearing the name of a Confederate president for a prominent civil rights lawyer.
The state’s Republican attorney general acted after Montgomery city council voted to switch Jeff Davis Avenue, named for Jefferson Davis, to Fred D Gray Avenue, the 91-year-old lawyer who represented Rosa Parks and others in cases that challenged the state’s segregation practices.
Gray, whom Martin Luther King Jr called “the chief counsel for the protest movement”, grew up on the street and became one of the first African Americans elected as legislators in Alabama since Reconstruction.
Across the US, in the wake of the rise of the Black Lives Matter racial justice movement, there has been an increase in efforts to take down statues of figures linked to racism and slavery. But there has also been a widespread backlash, especially among conservatives and Republicans.
Alabama’s 48th attorney general, Steve Marshall, has written to Montgomery officials saying the city had violated a state law protecting Confederate monuments and other longstanding memorials and must pay a $25,000 fine by 8 December, “otherwise, the attorney general will file suit on behalf of the state”.
Montgomery’s mayor, Steven Reed, the first African American to serve in the post, hit back, saying switching the name was the right thing to do.
“It was important that we show, not only our residents here, but people from afar that this is a new Montgomery,” Reed told the Associated Press, adding that the name change was his idea.
“We want to honor those heroes that have fought to make this union as perfect as it can be. When I see a lot of the Confederate symbols that we have in the city, it sends a message that we are focused on the lost cause as opposed to those things that bring us together under the Stars and Stripes.”
Alabama’s 2017 Memorial Preservation Act, enacted after cities across the nation began to remove Confederate monuments, forbids the removal or alteration of monuments and memorials – including a memorial street or memorial building – that have stood for more than 40 years.
Montgomery, sometimes referred to as the “Cradle of the Confederacy” because the alliance was formed there in 1861 and served as the first Confederate capital, was also key to the civil rights movement a century later, including the Montgomery bus boycott.
Several Alabama cities have opted to take down Confederate monuments and pay the $25,000 fine, including Huntsville, AKA Rocket City, where the US space program was originally centered, that voted for the removal of a memorial to an unnamed Confederate soldier last year.