Tired of all the thumb-twiddling, navel-gazing and shallow rationalizations by state lawmakers and university leaders, a group of protesters decided to take matters into their own hands in Chapel Hill on Monday night. So they hoisted ropes around the long-standing statue of a Confederate soldier and pulled it to the ground.
“Silent Sam,” as he is called, has been a landmark on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus for more than a century, erected ostensibly to honor fallen Confederate soldiers. But many saw it instead as a statement of white supremacy, cast in stone and placed prominently in the university’s front yard on Franklin Street for all to see. As evidence, they point to the wave of Confederate monuments erected in North Carolina and elsewhere during the Jim Crow era of segregation and racial oppression. And they point specifically to some of the remarks made during Sam’s dedication in 1913 by Julian Carr.
“I trust I may be pardoned for one allusion, howbeit it is rather personal,” said Carr, a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan. “One hundred yards from where we stand, less than 90 days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers. I performed the pleasing duty in the immediate presence of the entire garrison, and for 30 nights afterwards slept with a double-barrel shot gun under my head.”
It is, of course, true that Monday’s protesters violated the law and damaged public property. It also is true that their actions were dangerous and could have turned much uglier. But their cause was just, if not their methods. And it is easy to understand their mounting frustration and anger.
Anger that the Republican-led legislature not only rebuffed calls to remove Confederate monuments but appointed itself as their protector, passing a law in 2015 that forbids their removal without lawmakers’ consent.
Anger that the UNC Board of Governors refused even to discuss Silent Sam at last week’s meeting after promising to address it.
Anger at the favored status of Confederate monuments on public squares throughout North Carolina (as if no other wars or sacrifices or acts of heroism in our history matter as much).
Some argue that the removal of Confederate statues is an effort to ignore or erase history (as if history books don’t exist). More accurately, it is an effort to provide balance and perspective. Who can defend the fact that the vast majority of war memorials in this state are Confederate ... more numerous than World War I, World War II, Korean War and Vietnam tributes? Who can ignore the hurt and insult these monuments represent, given their roots in slavery, segregation and lynching?
So now what was left of Silent Sam has been hauled off in a dump truck. Blame “mob rule” if you will. But it was poor leadership in Chapel Hill and Raleigh that ultimately led to Monday night.