Give Harry Smith credit for being willing to do his homework and change his mind.
Maybe being on the UNC board has helped to educate him.
Smith, the usually outspoken and politically conservative chairman of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, emerged from a recent board meeting and told reporters that his thinking about what to do about the “Silent Sam” statue has “evolved.” He no longer favors restoring that Confederate monument to its prominent post on the UNC Chapel Hill campus.
That’s a welcome change in the controversy that’s roiled over Silent Sam — a controversy that’s already contributed to the resignations of two top administrators, UNC System President Margaret Spellings and Carol Folt, who was the chancellor at Chapel Hill.
Both of those women resigned amid the acrimonious debate about what to do after protesters knocked down Silent Sam last August.
The Board of Governors told Folt and the UNC Chapel Hill trustees to figure out what to do with the toppled statue.
Trying to come up with a reasonable plan was nearly impossible, however, because the Republican-dominated state legislature had passed a law in 2015 that basically forbids the removal of such monuments from public spaces, unless they are relocated to a similarly prominent and accessible spot.
With their hands effectively tied, the trustees’ solution was anything but reasonable. They proposed building a $5.3 million UNC history museum on campus, ensconcing Silent Sam in it, and paying big bucks for security to protect the statue.
The Board of Governors said no and called for a new plan. We’re still waiting to see that.
Smith, along with a number of other conservative members of the board, had been in favor of restoring Sam to its original location. That would only have led to more outrage, and likely more violence. It’s now widely understood that the statue was erected during the Jim Crow era as a monument not to Civil War dead but to racial oppression. It’s unacceptable for it to have a place of honor on any campus.
Some supporters of putting Silent Sam back argue that doing so would be a statement against “mob” rule and political correctness. In reality, putting Sam back up would be commemorating a much worse kind of mob rule.
At his press conference, Smith said that his original opinion in favor of putting Silent Sam back where it had been was “probably quick and uneducated.”
He’s right about that.
He went on to say, commendably, that since then he’s gone out of his way to talk to a lot of people whose opinions he values, and that those discussions have shown him what was wrong with his first impulse.
Smith said he now thinks the right path is to take plenty of time to make the right decision.
Giving legislators time and impetus to change the law would be a great idea. One good approach would be to put Silent Sam in a corner of an existing museum, with an explanation about what the monument meant and why it’s no longer on the Chapel Hill campus. It can be useful to learn from our troubled history.
Meanwhile, good for Chairman Smith for being willing to investigate, think about things and admit when he’s been wrong.