A social justice nonprofit is demanding a public apology from an Alabama lawmaker who they say made racist remarks during a commission meeting earlier this week.
In an open letter emailed to Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, on Wednesday, Project Say Something states Melson made the comments during a Lauderdale County Commission meeting on Monday. During that meeting, commissioners voted against adding a discussion about the removal a Confederate statue to the agenda.
Project Say Something accuses Melson of derailing the conversation by mentioning the nonprofit’s 2018 proposal to erect a statue of Dred and Harriet Scott beside the county’s 117-year-old Confederate statue.
“You know, the group that wanted Dred Scott in chains, I think that would be a sign of more oppression than a soldier where it’s hard to read what’s underneath the statue by far,” Melson said at the meeting. “I think it’s pretty obvious what a half-dressed black man in chains would be representing the past that I’m quite frankly shocked that anybody would even suggest putting that in front of a courthouse cause that would be a disgrace and a sign of a time that we definitely don’t like reliving.”
Melson’s comments inaccurately described Project Say Something’s statue proposal, which features a fully clothed Dred and Harriet Scott pulling the chains of slavery, the group says. The nonprofit says it decided to honor the couple because Dred Scott spent nearly a decade in Florence before he was sold to an army surgeon.
“Mr. Melson’s description of the monument as featuring a ‘half-dressed Black man’ is blatantly false and belies his racism,” Project Say Something states in the open letter. “That Melson chose to envision a ‘half-dressed black man’ speaks to his great disrespect of Project Say Something, Black history, and Black people.”
A sketch of the Dred and Harriet Scot statue. A Florence-based social justice nonprofit called Project Say Something wanted to install this statue next to the Confederate monument sitting at the Lauderdale County Courthouse.
Dred Scott is also the namesake of the 1857 U.S. Supreme Court case in which justices ruled that black people, freed or enslaved, were not U.S. citizens and thus could not petition for their freedom. The decision increased tensions between the North and the South before the Civil War. Project Say Something has been trying to add context to the Confederate statue in Florence since 2017.
During the meeting, Melson said he was glad commissioners didn’t listen to Project Say Something’s proposal for the statue.
“If y’all had gotten in a motion five months ago, you would have had a Dred Scott statue in chains. I don’t think that would have been, uh, very comfortable for a lot of people coming into this building,” Melson said.
The remains of the Confederacy are being removed across Alabama. Monuments have been removed in Birmingham, Mobile and Montgomery. At the University of Alabama, plaques honoring students who fought in the Confederacy were removed. In Montgomery, high school graduates are asking the Montgomery Public Schools Board to rename high schools named after Confederate veterans.
During the meeting, Melson said he understood both sides of the Confederate monument argument, which alarmed Project Say Something.
“Apparently, Mr. Melson doesn’t want a statue of a black man in chains because it is a history that makes him uncomfortable: in his words, it is ‘a sign of a time that we definitely don’t like reliving,’” the nonprofit wrote. “What Mr. Melson fails to note is that with the Confederate statue in place, African American community members are forced to ‘relive’ that past every time they walk into the courthouse.”
The series of Confederate statue removals happened as people protested following the death of George Floyd, who was killed in May by a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. The loss of black lives led to a rallying cry across the nation to remove Confederate symbols.
Project Say Something mentioned in its letter that Melson voted for the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act of 2017, which prohibits the removal or renaming of historically significant buildings and monuments.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall filed a lawsuit against the city of Birmingham for its removal, which could result in a one-time $25,000 fine. A GoFundMe account was created in Birmingham to pay the fine. According to news reports, the city of Florence has the money to pay the fine. Project Say Something called Melson’s comments “untimely” and “unhelpful.”
“His comments come at a time when his community is seeking a peaceful resolution to a problem that has caused much pain and injury," the letter states. "Moreover, his comments were referring to a proposal that was not even being discussed at that meeting and had been denied by the county commission more than two years ago.”