Small-town Alabama resident turned leader of protest

ALBERTVILLE, Ala. (AP) – In her final year at Albertville High School in 2015, teachers presented Unique Morgan Dunston with a citizenship award and her senior colleagues voted her clown of the class. Today she is the target of death threats and mockery on Main Street.

The change is due to what Dunston is doing now, not who she was years ago. A black woman transformed upon leaving a virtually all-white Alabama hometown where new ideas about race and justice clash with Old South lore, Dunston has been leading regular protests since August against a Confederate monument on the Lawn of the court.

Dunston and a small group of compatriots regularly chant anti-racist slogans, hold signs and use chalk to mark the street with relentless demands to demolish the monument, which has the image of a rebel soldier holding a Confederate battle flag . It was installed on public property by the sons of Confederate veterans over two decades ago with permission from the county.

“My hope and desire is that as we continue more people in the community will start to come out, that they will realize that this was not a phase, that ‘they are serious and they need our help, ”she said. . “Because we do. “

The movement has some support: A retired county judge wrote a public letter approving the removal of the monument, and groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, have sided with Dunston. More than 3,300 people have signed an online petition supporting the cause.

Yet like an unwanted Bible prophet in his own home, Dunston has become a lightning rod for criticism from people who just wish her away. Rather than removing the stone monument, the county built a metal fence around it and passed legislation to restrict protests, some of which turned into shouting matches between Dunston’s group, Reclaiming Our Time, and the Confederate sympathizers.

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“Everyone is tired,” Marshall County Commission Chairman James Hutcheson said in an interview. “People want to move on in their life and get past that.”

There is no sign the end is near: Dunston said protests will continue until the monument is gone, and county officials have taken no action to remove it.

Located 130 kilometers northeast of Birmingham on Sand Mountain, a plateau near the southern tip of the Appalachians, Albertville is a town of about 22,000 people in Marshall County, where the poultry industry and manufacturing plants medium size employ thousands of people.

The county’s population is predominantly white, about 15% Hispanic, many of whom work in poultry factories, and only 3% black, according to census figures.

Although her family has lived in the county for decades, Dunston said she was one of only two black female students in her class, which numbered around 225. With so few blacks, Dunston said, the community had little awareness of African American culture or attitudes when growing up.

“February was only February,” she said. “No Black History Month. “

After graduating from Albertville High School with honors, Dunston enrolled in University in the city of Mobile on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, with a population of about 190,000, or just over half of blacks. Suddenly she was immersed in a city with a rich black culture.

“I experienced something that I have never experienced here in my hometown of Albertville,” she said.

Aware of racial injustice like never before, Dunston returned from Mobile to help organize two “marches for unity” in Marshall County in June after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd in May. Hundreds of people attended each, and most of the participants were white as few people of color live in the area.

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Organizing through social media and word of mouth, Dunston decided to tackle the Confederate monument. Hope after the two marches drew so many crowds, Dunston couldn’t help but notice the difference in attendance at the first protest in August.

“It probably went from 600 (on the marches) to, the first time we came here, to 15,” she said. Online threats that started during the marches became more frequent and public taunts began. Several white men shouted at Dunston or sounded horns as they walked past a protest outside the courthouse in early December.

Unlike places where protests started in the spring and died down when the weather turned cool, protests have persisted in Albertville. The crowds aren’t huge, and sometimes there are as many or more people from Birmingham or Huntsville as locals alongside Dunston, who shuttles to and from Mobile for events.

Travis Jackson, a Black Lives Matter activist who lives near Montgomery, said coming to protest in little Albertville was motivating. “I love every song,” he says.

Dunston’s father is usually in the background, watching over his daughter as a bodyguard, and mother Elizabeth Stewart is a participant. Counter-defenders are common, including a local black man who supports the Confederate monument and the rebel flag.

Stewart said she recalled seeing movies at a racially-discriminated county theater as a girl, and that she was glad Dunston was speaking now.

“I raised her to be exactly what her name says, Unique – the only one,” she said. “I am very proud of the message that God sent to his heart to rise up. “

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