Will Montgomery rename Jefferson Davis Avenue after civil rights icon?

Fred Gray Sr. is a distinguished civil rights attorney whose job it was to defend Rosa Parks against criminal charges more than 45 years ago for contesting the bus separation and receiving compensation and medical treatment for the victims of the Tuskegee Syphilis Trial.

Jefferson Davis was President of the Confederation from 1861 to 1865, whose birthday is celebrated as a state holiday in Alabama.

The two names are on a collision course in Montgomery, where a battle is currently underway as to whether Davis’ name should be removed from a 1 1/2 mile stretch of town street and replaced with Gray’s name. On the street – Jefferson Davis Avenue – Gray lived as a child from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s.

“I can’t think of a stronger statement than changing the street name after the first Confederation President for someone who has fought to ensure that the United States realizes its potential for all citizens,” said Steven Reed, Mayor of Montgomery, pushing the effort . Reed is the first black mayor of Montgomery.

“It is a poetic justice, and it is appropriate that the city should honor Fred Gray in this way,” he added. “I am 100 percent committed to renaming Jefferson Davis Avenue after attorney Fred Gray. It is the right thing. “

Gray, who is 90 years old and works as a lawyer in a Tuskegee office, said Thursday he hoped the mayor’s efforts are successful but added that he didn’t think the street name was anything intriguing, and said it was “just one street I lived like Hill Street or Oak Street. Nothing magical about the name. “

Gray said, “If the council and the people want to honor me in this way, I would appreciate it and be grateful.”

But there are still a couple of big hurdles before this could happen – a 2017 landmark law and the politics of the city of Montgomery. Because of this, Montgomery City Council decided on Tuesday to support a resolution naming an “indefinite” place or street after Gray, but not necessarily after his childhood street, named after the non-Alabama Confederate leader and only lived in Alabama for a short time during his lifetime.

Charles Jinright, president of the Montgomery Council, said in an email to AL.com that less than 65 percent of the city’s requirements were met to support the owners’ name change along Jefferson Davis Avenue. Jinright said of the 130 property owners along the street, only 39 responded in support of the change, while 29 said no. The rest either weren’t reached or didn’t respond to the request.

“We’ve been through this before and it’s very expensive for owners to make any changes,” Jinright said, referring to the cost to individuals and businesses when a city changes a street name.

Reed said the lack of answers as well as the lack of 65 percent support for the change was “unacceptable”. He said in the coming weeks the city will “get this through” and focus more on reaching out to the owners “in whatever way we need to to let them know what we are up to and why it matters to do this and that. ” What message will it send to Montgomery to honor someone who has really fought for the betterment of this land and the betterment of the people everywhere, including the city? “

Reed said, “And to remove the name for someone who should never be put on a platform, if you will, to be honored.”

“Caught In The Past”

Jefferson Davis’ birthday is an Alabama state holiday.Public domain

Reed also said he was unmoved by concerns about possible punishment for violating the 2017 Alabama Memorial Preservation Act.

The state law has been known to the public since it was passed. Last year, however, the law returned to focus as cities across the state approved or encouraged the removal of memorials in honor of the Confederation and were subsequently fined by the Alabama Attorney General. Efforts to remove Confederate monuments were stepped up after George Floyd’s death on Memorial Day by Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer. Chauvin was sentenced by a jury on Tuesday in all three death-related cases.

The law makes it illegal to remove monuments over 40 years of age.

The cities of Alabama have chosen to pay a one-time fine of $ 25,000 and have monuments removed. This fine is considered too low by supporters of revised HB242 state legislation, which would increase penalties for elected officials and institutions such as universities to $ 10,000 per day for each day the memorial is removed.

Related: “Watershed Moment”: Will Removal of Confederate Monuments result in permanent change in Alabama?

Current law and HB242 also regulate the renaming of a “Memorial Street,” which is defined as a public street named or dedicated in honor of an event, group, military service or movement. The language in HB242 would also include “a war or a military conflict” in the definition.

Reed said he believed the law was “inconsistent” with the beliefs held by many Republican supporters in Alabama law. He said there was “great fear when it comes to state leadership” and saw the conservation act as undoing state government interference in local affairs.

“We worked under the guise that roads were subject to conservation law,” said Reed. “That said … I plan to honor attorney Fred Gray in this small way for his contributions and courage and commitment to equal rights for all. This will happen regardless of what is in the books now or what lawmakers will one day put in the books. We cannot be trapped in the past. We should focus on the men and women who led the United States to keep its constitutional promise to all of its citizens. “

Mike Lewis, spokesman for Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office, confirmed that “memorial streets” are part of the Conservation Act. He said the office declined to comment on a hypothetical violation.

During Tuesday’s meeting, prosecutor Stacy Bellinger said she was unaware that the state has been penalizing a city for changing the street name since the law emerged more than four years ago. She said the only cases of violations of state law were aimed at the removal of monuments.

“Different dynamics”

Meaher Avenue

Meaher Avenue in Prichard, Ala. Efforts are being made to rename the city street to Black Lives Matter Street. The avenue is named after Timothy Meaher, who illegally brought more than 110 slaves from Africa aboard the Clotilda to the United States in 1860. The slaves and their descendants formed the Africatown community near Prichard. (John Sharp/[email protected]).

Montgomery isn’t the only city to allow for street name changes in cities with large black populations.

In Prichard, a city that is more than 86 percent black, efforts were made last year to transform Meaher Avenue into Black Lives Matter Street. Prichard City Council voted in favor of the name change ahead of the city elections last summer. Efforts have since stalled, but Mayor Jimmie Gardner said he would like it to become official through the city’s June 19th celebration, which annually recognizes the emancipation of those enslaved in the United States

The name change would clean up a reference to the family of Timothy Meaher, the white slave trader who owned the slave ship Clotilda and who was responsible for the last illegal transport of slaves in the United States in 1860. Parts of the slave ship were established in 2019 Efforts are being made to highlight the history of the Africatown area north of Mobile and near Prichard, where the 110 or so Clotilda survivors settled and formed a community.

Gardner, like Reed, believes that the city council – rather than the legislature – is the right government agency to make changes to the street name.

He also said he would like to see other streets renamed Prichard that cross Meaher Avenue after the slaves who were aboard the Clotilda.

Gardner said he doesn’t think the cost of changing the street name in Prichard would be high as most are residential streets.

“It’s going to be a different dynamic,” said Gardner. “I don’t think you will get the citizens to change it.”

“True Heroes”

Fred Gray

Fred Gray

Reed said in Montgomery there was no schedule for the street name change. He delivered a passionate speech on Tuesday in support of the name change, with two of Gray’s sons in attendance, and said it was appropriate to honor Gray while he was alive.

“Very often we don’t give roses to people who are here,” Reed said. “We’ll wait for them to pass on. I do not believe that. “

In Alabama, further efforts are being made to honor Gray with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Letters in support of Gray have been written by Alabama Governor Kay Ivey in the past few months; Steve Murray, the director of the Department of Archives and History in Alabama; Wendell Gunn, who helped integrate the University of North Alabama in the 1960s (and was represented by Gray); Jay Gogue, president of Auburn University; and Stuart Bell, the President of the University of Alabama.

Gray’s long list of accomplishments spanned six decades of civil legal service, including representing Rosa Parks (who has a street named after her in Montgomery, which crosses Jefferson Davis Avenue). He spoke out on behalf of the four main plaintiffs in Browder against Gayle in 1956, which resulted in the bus segregation being declared unconstitutional under the equal treatment clause of the 14th Amendment.

His legal work also extended to protecting protesters during the Selma to Montgomery march in Williams against Wallace in 1965. He also fought in Lee against Macon County’s Board of Education in 1963 for school disregard, leading to the integration of all of Alabama did not already run schools under a court order.

Gray was also Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who successfully defended him against fraudulent tax evasion allegations and won an all-white jury acquittal in Montgomery.

“Dr. King once said,” Someday the South will see its real heroes, “said Derryn Moten, professor of history and political science at Alabama State University in Montgomery.” Attorney Fred Gray Sr. is one of those heroes. In a state With the slogan “We dare to defend our rights”, I am grateful that Montgomery, the capital, recognized and honored someone who vowed to destroy segregation wherever he found it.

Moten said, “It is no exaggeration to say that Fred Gray irrevocably changed life and the laws in Alabama. By the way, Gray was born on the month and day that Alabama became a state. “

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