In February 1988, when a black Alabama state representative named Thomas Reed was arrested for trying to climb a fence around the state capitol and remove the Confederate flag that was flying on top, the Civil Rights movement had supposedly been over for twenty years. Though marking the end of the Confederacy, whose battle flag was at issue, is fairly easy – with the surrender at Appomattox – marking the end of the Civil Rights movement is not. Had Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death in 1968 truly closed out the movement, perhaps Reed wouldn’t have been at odds with Gov. Guy Hunt over the white segregationist symbolism that remained where state leaders had defiantly placed it in 1961.
Removing Confederate battle flags from public spaces was a divisive issue in the late 1980s and early 1990s Deep South. Even the milk-toast alt-rock band Hootie & the Blowfish sang about this issue in their song, “Drowning.” So, this attempt at removal in Alabama was momentous enough to illicit coverage from The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune. The LA Times included reporting about how the issues extended beyond Alabama:
The NAACP is also campaigning to bring down a Confederate flag over the South Carolina Statehouse, as well as to remove rebel flags from the designs of the Georgia and Mississippi state flags.
By the late 1980s, the Civil War had been over for more than 125 years, but that had not stopped the Confederate battle flag’s proponents, whose mantra was “heritage, not hate.” The rhetoric used by supporters of the flag’s continued display proclaimed that its removal was an attempt to censor history, to pretend that the Confederacy never existed, or to allow political correctness to devalue the valiant states-rights stance taken by the fighting men of the South. However, their opponents in this cultural tug-of-war saw it very differently: the flag was, for them, a symbol of a violent and hate-filled tradition of white supremacy that had enabled a system of bondage, forced labor, rape, and lynching; thus, the continued valuation of that flag portended that those sentiments were still viable.
Rep. Thomas Reed, a Democrat from Tuskegee, was then the president of the Alabama NAACP leading his state’s campaign. Reed had been in the legislature since 1970, when African Americans were elected for the first time since Reconstruction. Eighteen years later, he was a definite and prominent voice in Alabama’s post-Civil Rights black community. According to coverage of his arrest from The New York Times, Reed had “previously tried to negotiate with Governor [Guy] Hunt over the issue,” yet Hunt’s retort was: “the flag is viewed by many as historic and without racial connotation.”
Reed was indeed fighting an uphill battle, trying to remove the Confederate flag from Alabama’s state capitol. The Washington Post‘s coverage featured commentary a man who had driven “100 miles to see Reed’s attempt to remove the flag”:
“I feel strong about it, but it’s not racism,” [ . . . ] He said the Confederate flag over the Capitol is “all that we have left. It’s all been taken away. Next, he [Reed] is going to want the name of the South changed.”
The Chicago Tribune shared another man’s sentiment, one common among white Southerners:
“I’ve got ancestors who died under that flag,” Dempsey said. “I think if the rebel flag comes down, the American flag ought to come down also.”
These Lost Cause ideals, however, neglected to parse out the logic that the Confederate flag truly is a rebel flag, and few, if any nations on Earth celebrate the accomplishments and grandeur of defeated rebellions on their own soil.
Ultimately, Thomas Reed failed to achieve his objective in 1988. He was in his early 60s that year and was pretty easily pulled off the fence by state troopers, who were there to stop him. Yet, this back-and-forth hadn’t started that day, nor would it end that day. Another black state representative named Alvin Holmes, a Democrat from Montgomery, had been poking sticks at this snarling dog for some time. A recent WSFA News story offers a timeline showing that Holmes’ federal lawsuits in 1976 (Holmes v. Wallace) and in 1988 (NAACP v. Hunt) to remove the Confederate flag had also failed. However, there was more to come.
Later that year, in November 1988, Thomas Reed was convicted on bribery charges in a matter unrelated to the Confederate flag and lost his seat in the Alabama legislature. However, Reed saw a link. Associated Press coverage explained:
”Judge, I know I’m not guilty,” he said Friday. Reed, a Tuskegee Democrat, blamed his prosecution on his attempt to have the Confederate flag removed from atop the Capitol.
However, as evidence of Reed’s power and influence, he was re-elected to the Alabama legislature after serving his time in prison.
Ultimately, the Confederate battle flag did come down from Alabama’s state capitol due to an Alvin Holmes lawsuit. On his third try, in 1993, Holmes’ legal challenge of the flag’s placement succeeded. In the judgment for Holmes v. Hunt, we see in that ruling that Alabama law “permits only the state and national flags be hoisted and flown over the Capitol dome.” Furthermore, Gov. Guy Hunt was “permanently enjoined from ordering or allowing” any other flag to fly there again.
Yet, it would be 2015, a century-and-a-half after the surrender at Appomattox, and almost a quarter-century since Holmes v. Hunt, when virtually all Confederate symbolism was removed from the state capitol grounds. It was still a touchy subject then— and in some quarters, it still is now.