George Floyd in the Deep South

by Curtis Price

Outsiders often lump the South together as an undifferentiated region, but this blanket categorization disguises important differences in culture and politics between Southern states. Mississippi and Alabama, for instance, are radically different from North Carolina and Tennessee despite their geographical proximity and their shared Confederate history. Mississippi and Alabama had different courses of development than the Upper South, where small yeoman farming dominated (in contrast to the Deep South’s large plantations). George Floyd demonstrations took a different form in these states, both desperately poor and sharing a long history of reactionary superstructures dominated by what are called in Alabama the “Big Mules,” landowning and industrial elites that controlled state politics and social life for over a century. To a large extent, they still do.

Alabama has the longest state constitution in the world, going on for hundreds of pages, a thoroughly anti-democratic 1901 document specifically designed to prevent any replay of the 1880s-era multi-racial populist movement that threatened elite power. The extreme centralization encoded in this revanchist constitution has stripped cities of almost any local control, which has kept Birmingham and Huntsville from mothballing Confederate statues or else face a $25,000 fine. The state legislature is currently trying to raise fines to $5,000 a day and hold city officials personally liable for them. The irony of public officials railing at the federal government for trampling on “states rights” and yet not hesitating to apply an iron heel to any expressions of local autonomy is lost on the perpetrators.

Even obscuring a Confederate statue, as Mayor Woodfin of Birmingham did by covering it with plywood, is labeled a crime worthy of state prosecution. Mississippi only removed the Confederate cross bars, enshrined on the state flag for over a century, in 2021. In the Deep South, as William Faulkner – who knew a thing or two about such things – famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

With this background, what was striking is how the George Floyd protests ended as possibly the largest and most widespread demonstrations in each state’s history. In Mississippi, for instance, a protest outside the state capital in Jackson attracted over 4,000 people. A critical difference between the protests during the Civil Rights movement and those that erupted after George Floyd’s death however is that state repression was absent in the latter, so comparing absolute numbers of crowds is misleading when assessing their social impact. During the George Floyd protests, for instance, there were no phalanxes of cops with riot shields and snarling dogs ready to be sicced on protestors. The cops mostly stayed unobtrusive and, at times, even participated by “taking a knee.”

Besides the Jackson demonstration, there were solidarity rallies in Biloxi, Gulfport, Hattiesburg, Tupelo, Meridian, Starkville, and Oxford ranging from a few dozen to several hundred. In Petal, a tiny town outside Hattiesburg, home of the University of Southern Mississippi, large demonstrations of a few hundred took place calling for Mayor Hal Marx’s resignation after the good mayor said he saw nothing unreasonable in how the cops responded in Minneapolis.

In Alabama – more populated and industrialized (Alabama is now an auto industry center because of factory transplants from the North) – protests took place not only in the larger urban cores such as Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Mobile but also in many smaller peripheries. In Dothan, for instance, a small agricultural city near the Florida panhandle – the “Peanut Capital of the World,” as the city dubs itself – demonstrations were organized by The Ordinary Peoples’ Society (T.O.P.S), a pre-existing, mostly black working class group already mobilized around police brutality and voting rights for felons. Florence, Decatur, Troy and Auburn also saw sizeable-for-their-size demonstrations.

In contrast with Mississippi, there were confrontations with police in several Alabama cities, the sharpest of which was in Birmingham, where downtown stores were looted after cops stopped an attempt to take down a Confederate-era statue. Mobile also experienced smaller skirmishes with police that were quickly quashed. In Huntsville, which has a larger professional managerial sector because of the city’s reliance on military and aerospace contracts, police still attacked a peaceful crowd after a demonstration went over the allotted time, tear-gassing and arresting many in a pre-emptive strike under the excuse of preventing rumored “Antifa-type looting.”

If most demonstrations in Alabama and Mississippi conformed to the pattern elsewhere, in other cases, the particular contradictions of the Deep South played out.

In Gadsden, a smaller de-industrialized city in central Alabama whose last major employer, Goodyear Tires, had just announced its plant closing and where disgraced far-right Republican senate candidate Roy Moore rides on a horse to vote wearing a Stetson, protests faced different obstacles.

A target for the local BLM was the Emma Sansom statue in downtown Gadsden erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Sansom was so honored for having tended the war-wounds of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general who later founded the Ku Klux Klan. Sansom’s descendents wrote a moving open letter supporting removal. But demonstrations at the statue were met by pro-Confederate counter-demonstrators.

Jerome Gunn, a Detroit ex-pat, became known as a leading Gadsden BLM organizer. Before BLM, Gunn ran clothing and food drives for the poor and a soup kitchen for the homeless out of his Gadsden car wash and detailing business. Gunn had also personally paid for hotel rooms for people displaced by a fire at a local apartment complex and for survivors in nearby Jacksonville when swaths of the city were flattened by a tornado outbreak in 2018.

Those good deeds didn’t stop Gunn from getting arrested at BLM demonstrations on dubious charges of “first degree theft by deception,” which many rightly interpreted as harassment for his role in BLM. Shortly afterwards, Gunn’s business was fire-bombed and gutted (the same fate, coincidentally, befell the home of one of Roy Moore’s accusers). The irony, as Gunn pointed out, was that the majority of people he helps are white. No suspects have been arrested – and probably never will.

It deserves mentioning how Gadsden BLM demonstrations, in an inspiring display of cross-issue solidarity, regularly stopped outside the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, which doubles as one of the most repressive holding tanks for ICE immigrant detention, while inmates cheered and banged on windows in support. But such connecting up of different struggles was all-too-rare during George Floyd protests here.

A few dozen miles away in Albertville, a small city of 20,000 dominated by the poultry industry and where mostly Hispanics and Haitian workers recently wildcatted over wages, a George Floyd memorial march attracted over 600 people. Even counting the presence of outsiders from other cities such as nearby Huntsville, this was a huge turn-out.

But the Confederate flag still flies every day outside the Marshall County Courthouse in Albertville. When Unique Dunston, an Albertville BLM organizer, attempted a campaign to remove the flag, the turn-out was tiny and like Gadsden, counter-demonstrators, some armed, came out in opposition. The city refuses to take down the flag.

The focus on removing Confederate statues and flags in the South has been a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s easy to see how these are visible symbols of an era of white supremacy and a reminder of its continued grip in the South today. Thus, they became an easy target for protests. Yet on the other hand, statues are just symbols of this larger web of social relations and removing them was an easy cathartic gesture that left these underlying conditions intact while giving people a sense of having accomplished “something.”

For this reason, many – but not all – the demonstrations against Confederate statues mostly attracted college-educated whites. This was certainly the case in Huntsville, where protests against the statue of a Confederate soldier in front of the county courthouse were white-dominated, a reflection of the city’s higher than average share of white PMC workers and smaller African American population. The response among working class blacks was more muted. As one African-American Mississippi farmer, a man who limped from beatings during the Civil Rights era, put it, “Those statues? We never paid attention to them. We know we ain’t going back to those days.” This probably reflected the silent opinion of many, who voted with their feet by not coming out.

A further irony is that the Redeemer myth of the “solid South,” the very memory which the statues honor, papers over how the South lost the war in large part because of mass desertion. Towards the end of the war, nearly 40% of Confederate soldiers had gone M.I.A. Not all of these desertions were consciously anti-Confederate – many soldiers abandoned their posts because of family hardship at home and not from a conscious rejection of war objectives.

But enough did. In North Alabama, for instance, an area where big plantations never existed, whole swaths became ungovernable, with multi-year sustained guerrilla warfare erupting against the Confederacy. Secret societies formed within the ranks of the Confederate army that sabotaged the war from within and provided an underground railroad to encourage desertion to Union armies or hiding out from authorities. Du Bois notes this phenomenon in “Black Reconstruction” when he wrote, “the poor white not only began to desert and run away, but thousand followed the Negro into the Northern camps.” Little of this history is known in the South and is unlikely to surface anytime soon.1

Still, as the situations in Gadsden and Albertville both show, vague exhortations to racial reconciliation and healing can run up against genuine white supremacy (the real deal, not some feigned, promiscuous, au courant accusations where anything under the sun can get labeled as “whiteness” with enough effort) if limits are pushed too far, violating boundaries of what is considered “acceptable” discourse. Under this rubric, slavery gets acknowledged as a wrong – there is little talk anymore about how happy enslaved people were on plantations – but then the topic is quickly changed. Dwelling too much on slavery then becomes a sign of stirring up “trouble.”

The threat of non-state agents of repression enforcing this “acceptable” race discourse, with local authorities predictably turning a blind eye, especially outside the major cities, remains real. It’s all more underground now: there are no visible White Citizens’ Councils with vigilante clout, memberships in the thousands and control of local small town infrastructure. Yet the fact that these informal networks exist at all highlights the tortured link between the entrenched old South and the slowly emerging new in two states where “the past is never dead, it’s not even past.”

  1. Christopher Sheats, one of the leaders of the ‘Free State of Winston’ armed northern Alabama blacks and told them to shoot the Klan on site, don't wait for them to attack first. Yet Sheats has been excised from both local and national history. One good source is Susan Neelly Deily-Swearingen, ‘Rebel Rebels: Race, Resistance, and Remembrance in "The Free State of Winston"’. University of New Hampshire Dissertation, 2019.