About 3:30 a.m. on a Saturday last July, an on-duty patrol car with the Demopolis, Ala., Police Department proceeded along North Main Avenue toward West Capitol Street. It was a clear night, and nothing much was going on. There hadn’t been an arrest for two days, and that had been for misdemeanor theft from a supermarket. The squad car rolled past the bank and the power company on the left , the town square on the right. Up ahead, in the center of the intersection, loomed a monument: a marble statue of a soldier, not quite life-size, elevated about a dozen feet on a granite pedestal. He was gazing south, toward the oncoming patrol car. The butt of his upturned rifle rested at his boots; a blanket roll was draped over his left shoulder. Negotiating the intersection required a slight swerve around the monument — but the police officer crashed straight into it. The impact of the Dodge Charger broke off the soldier at the shins and put him on his back amid the shrubs and flowers around the monument. His cropped boots remained on the pedestal. Undamaged was the inscription on the base: “Our Confederate Dead.”
A sign at the outskirts of Demopolis announces “City of the People,” a translation of the town’s name from the ancient Greek. The population numbers 7,020 — 50 percent black, 47 percent white — which is enough to make it the largest city in Marengo County. This is the western part of Alabama’s Black Belt, so named for its rich soil, but also intimately associated with the enslaved people who worked the cotton fields, then stayed on as free tenant farmers, and whose descendants drove the struggle for civil rights. Symbols of liberation and lost causes are everywhere, telling rival stories, like the Greek Revival plantation houses, with their white columns and pediments out front, and their former slave cabins calling quietly from the back.
Following the crash, the lieutenant on duty woke up Chief Tommie Reese, who responded to the scene. The chief, in turn, rousted Mayor Mike Grayson, who threw on a pair of shorts and hurried the few blocks from his house. Grayson, 65, who is white, was silently praying the act wasn’t intentional. According to family lore, his grandmother, as treasurer for the Marengo Rifles Chapter of the #United Daughters of the Confederacy, wrote the check to pay for the monument. “The last thing I wanted to happen was Demopolis to become a battleground between the Sons [of Confederate Veterans] and the Daughters of the Confederacy and the Black Lives movement,” he said later. “We had worked too hard for too many years.”
Reese, 52, who is black, wanted to get the facts out as soon as possible, before conspiracy theories could propagate. The car and statue were removed quickly. As a consequence, few pictures circulated on social media, an Orwellian turn that unintentionally fueled speculation. After working the scene, Reese took a short nap. When he awoke by 9 or 10 a.m., “it was already spiraling out of control” on the Internet, he said, spurred in part by people chiming in from other parts of the country. A leading theory was that the officer was black and had been paid to take out the statue. A small, peaceful, racially diverse crowd of gawkers gathered to contemplate the pedestal that now uplifted simply a pair of Confederate ankles.
The news spread “immediately, by word of mouth,” said Annye Braxton, 84, who had participated in voting rights drives and rallies in the mid-1960s at Demopolis’s Morning Star Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke. An African American pastor at another church told me, “There was jubilation on the African American side of town.”