Four days after George Floyd was killed by a policeman in Minneapolis, protesters in Richmond, Virginia, responded to his death by targeting the city’s Confederate statues. All along the city’s famed Monument Avenue, the large hulking bronze and stone memorials to Confederate icons Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and the grand statue to Robert E. Lee, were vandalized, and arguably in the case of Lee, transformed into a symbol of resistance.
Protestors spray-painted the statues with their messages of frustration, ripped the Davis statue from its pedestal, and even set the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy aflame. Many people across the South and the nation were perplexed. Why had the death of a black man in Minnesota led to outrage hundreds of miles away in Virginia? Black southerners saw in Confederate monuments the same issues at the heart of Floyd’s death—systemic racism, white supremacy, and the police brutality that has been generated by those social ills.
It would be a mistake, however, to see the events of last summer as a recent phenomenon, solely a reaction spawned by the nascent Black Lives Matter movement. In truth, these statues have raised the ire of African Americans for more than a century, ever since they were first installed decades after the Civil War. Frederick Douglass called them “monuments of folly,” and when the enormous statue was unveiled to Robert E. Lee in Richmond in 1890, an African American journalist criticized the effort to honor a man who had “bound himself under oath to support and . . . extend the accursed institution of human slavery.”
Today’s Black-led movement to tear down Confederate idolatry also mirrors the case, 55 years ago, when, in 1966, young protestors in Tuskegee, Alabama, exacted their frustrations on the town’s Confederate monument when a white man was acquitted of murdering 21-year-old Sammy Younge, Jr.
Late in the evening of January 3, 1966, Younge stopped to use the bathroom at a local filling station managed by 68-year-old Marvin Segrest. When Segrest pointed him to the “Negro” bathroom, Younge, who was involved in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at Tuskegee Institute (now University), countered by asking him if he’d heard of the Civil Rights Act that made such segregated facilities illegal. An argument ensued between the two men and Segrest pulled a gun and shot Younge in the back of the head, killing him. He admitted as much when arrested.
According to James Forman, who then served as a field director for SNCC in Alabama, “the murder of Sammy Younge marked the end of tactical non-violence.” In the days and months ahead, Tuskegee students and friends of Younge took to the street to express their fury over what had happened to someone so young. Nearly 3,000 people—including students, faculty, staff, and members of the local community—walked into town and called on the mayor to do more than “deplore the incident.”