The Slatest

The Bizarre Saga of a Stolen Confederate Memorial Held for Ransom

Monuments and tombstones seen in a Southern cemetery.
The Old Live Oak Cemetery in Selma, Alabama, where the chair was stolen. Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Over the first two weeks of April, a strange drama unfolded in Selma, Alabama. A very expensive chair vanished. A group of Confederate apologists received a ransom note. Police got involved. Then the story got weirder. Here’s what you need to know to catch up on the saga of the Jefferson Davis chair.

How did this start? 

In late March, the United Daughters of the Confederacy reported that an ornately carved stone chair dedicated to Confederate president Jefferson Davis—and estimated by the group to be worth $50,000—was stolen from a cemetery in Selma.

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On April 5, a group identifying itself as “White Lies Matter” declared it had taken the chair and demanded a ransom. But instead of money, the group wanted the UDC to hang a banner outside their headquarters in Richmond with a quote from a famous Black Liberation Army activist. If the UDC didn’t do it in time, the group warned in a ransom note, the chair would be carved out and used as a toilet. “Shit just got real,” the note said.

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Who is “White Lies Matter”? 

The people behind White Lies Matter—a name that, if read too quickly, might cause you to falsely associate it with a white supremacist rallying cry—identified themselves as a leaderless band of anti-racists originating in the South. In an emailed statement, the group said, “Like most Confederate monuments, [the chair] mostly exists to remind those who’s [sic] freedom had to be purchased in blood, that there still exists a portion of our country that is more than willing to continue to spill blood to avoid paying that debt down. … We took their toy, and we don’t feel guilty about it. They never play with it anyway. They just want it there to remind us what they’ve done, what they are still willing to do.”

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The timing was significant: the date for the banner’s unveiling was to be Friday, the anniversary of the day Robert E. Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Court House.

What quote did they want on the banner?

“The rulers of this country have always considered their property more important than our lives.” That quote is from Assata Shakur, an activist who joined the Black Liberation Army and who was convicted in the 1973 killing of a state trooper in New Jersey.

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Why did they target the United Daughters of the Confederacy? 

If there’s any group of people you can blame for the “Lost Cause” mythology about the Civil War, it’s this one. The UDC was born out of a campaign to depict the Confederacy’s racist intentions as revolving around genteel honor and state’s rights. Members of the UDC—as the name suggests, a women’s organization—rebelled during the Reconstruction by depicting themselves, cannily, as grieving wives and daughters simply memorializing their loved ones, avoiding the crackdowns that male pro-Confederacy activity might have drawn. Still, their politics were never secret: they supported the Ku Klux Klan in its early days, and they lobbied to have textbooks altered to depict slavery as less cruel and those defending it as honorable.

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Over the years, they have paid for countless monuments to be placed in prominent public spaces, often commissioning new ones in times of racial unrest. They are also notoriously litigious and are behind many of the recent high-profile legal disputes over Confederate monuments.

So did they hang the banner?

No. The UDC offered a $5,000 reward for information about the chair’s disappearance.

Last Wednesday, the White Lies Matter group said that it was making good on its threat: “As the UDC has given us every indication that they had no intention of hanging the banner, even going as far as declaring our demands, ‘fake news,’ White Lies Matter has decided to move forward prematurely with the alteration of the chair. It will be returned to the UDC immediately.”

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The group then released photos showing a man in a Union uniform using the chair—now with a hole cut out in the middle—as a toilet.

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So they really used it as a toilet? 

Not quite. This is where the story takes a turn. After the group released the photos, a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser noticed that the chair looked a little, well, off. She did a little digging, and White Lies Matter copped to constructing a replica out of wood and foam. The original chair was unsoiled.

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A spokesman with a fake Southern accent told the Washington Post that the group had come up with the idea to steal a Confederate symbol and landed on the chair because it was reportedly more than a century old (a good majority of Confederate monuments were produced in the 20th century and can therefore be easily replaced) and because “it looked like something that belonged somewhere other than sitting in the dirt and having birds defecate on it.”

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The chair was “easily over 300 pounds,” he told the Post, and took “a good number of people” to lift. The group also told the Advertiser that they had started working on the fake chair “long before” they stole the original.

They also said they always planned to return the chair as they found it. “You know, we already cleaned it, we already got all the moss off of it, took a bunch of brushes to it, made it nice and pretty,” the spokesman told the Post.

What ultimately happened to the real chair?

The group said it gave New Orleans police and the UDC GPS coordinates of a “safe location” where it left the chair. On Thursday, police recovered the real chair, though they say it did not match the GPS coordinates. It was returned to the UDC shortly after.

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Is that the end of the saga?

No. Two people—a 32-year-old man and a 24-year-old woman—were arrested on Friday and face charges for possession of stolen property. A third man is wanted in connection to the theft.

Before the arrests, the group expressed optimism that they wouldn’t really get into trouble: “As for any charges stemming from this action, we currently have white supremacists storming the Capitol in Washington D.C. and killing cops. This is a victimless crime,” the group said in an email to the Advertiser. “The only thing hurt here were feelings. We suspect after all is said and done, the authorities will choose to spend their time on something worthwhile.

“We did our part—and do not mistake it, it was not the part for heroes, but the part for idiots,” they added. “The real heroes are in jail cells, in graves, in history books where they continue to fight for how honest we are willing to be about the narrative behind the flag.”

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