Taking matters into his own hands, former mayor of Tuskegee nearly topples Confederate monument
Updated: Nov 23, 2021
Equipped with determination, a bucket lift, and a cement saw, Tuskegee City Councilman Johnny Ford, 78, turned his frustration with a local Confederate monument into cutting action.
Earlier this month, Ford, successfully hacked about halfway through the left ankle of a statue owned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization dedicated to the preservation of Confederate heritage, history, and memory.
The statue of the anonymous Confederate soldier was originally erected by the group in 1906 and has been a sore spot for the city of Tuskegee for more than 100 years.
Located in the middle of the city's town square, the monument was a gift to the UDC from Macon County officials, who, at the time were all white. In fact, the 2-acre area around the statue was designated a "whites-only" park for decades.
Since the monument's installation, activists and social justice advocates have persistently campaigned for the removal of the statue. In the 1960's, students at Tuskegee Institute attempted, unsuccessfully, to remove the concrete figure from the city center. More recently, the Confederate soldier was vandalized with anti-racist graffiti, with two major incidents occurring in 2015 and 2017. Coincidentally, the Alabama Legislature passed a law in 2017, The Monument Preservation Act, forbidding the removal or alteration of historic markers, including those honoring the Confederacy. The statue was again vandalized in June 2020 in the wake of nationwide unrest sparked by the unpunished, extrajudicial murders of several Black Americans.
1966 file photo of Tuskegee professor, Frank Toland, speaking to a group of protesters in front of the Confederate soldier statue. Courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives and History.
Ford, who is also a former mayor of Tuskegee and state legislator, has tried in the past to have the statue removed. After taking office as mayor in 1972, Ford attempted and failed to have the monument relocated. In 2015, he made yet another unsuccessful attempt to remove the controversial sculpture. His most recent effort may have damaged the statue beyond repair. Nevertheless, the longtime politician has been unapologetic about his actions, arguing that such a monument has no place in a city populated and governed by Black citizens, especially given Tuskegee's rich history as a civil rights enclave and as home of the renowned Tuskegee University.
In response to questions about state law prohibiting the unauthorized removal of historic monuments, Ford retorted, “I don’t really care what the state wants to do. This is Tuskegee.”
“The goal is to remove the statue, leave the base and upon the base give the citizens an opportunity to select a replacement for the Confederate soldier with an appropriate hero or shero,” he explained.
The councilman further shared with reporters his plan to bury the monument and place a headstone at the burial site, marking the Confederate soldier's final resting place.
Ford might have finally met success in his quest to bring down the monument had it not been for Macon County Sheriff André Brunson, who interrupted the attempt. When Brunson arrived on the scene, Ford and his accomplices had already sawed about halfway through the statue's left leg. While Ford was not arrested, Brunson did indicate that criminal charges would be forthcoming, including a charge of "destruction of property."
“If the state wants to fine us, fine. If they want to try to arrest us, fine,” Ford said after the incident. “Sometimes you have to get into 'good trouble' in order to bring about change," he added, referencing a term popularized by late civil rights icon, Congressman John Lewis.
“During the ’60s, we were fighting for voting rights and we went to jail. We did what we had to do. This issue is very, very serious with me. This statue represents slavery. It stands for the Confederacy, whose fight was to keep slavery. My forefathers were enslaved. I take that very, very seriously,” Ford told The Montgomery Advertiser.
In the weeks since the statue was cut, two contractors have examined the monument and determined that it is unsafe, according to Ford. Tuskegee's mayor and City Council are now discussing options for permanent removal from the site now that it has been deemed unstable.
No matter the ultimate outcome, Councilman Ford, has remained steadfast in his cause and action.
“I’m prepared to do whatever’s necessary—go to court, pay a fine, go to jail and, if necessary, die for this cause,” he said. "We [Macon county officials] won’t tolerate slavery being boastfully portrayed in our communities anymore.”