A statue of a Confederate soldier nicknamed “Silent Sam” stands on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

In the wake of deadly unrest in Charlottesville, activists at rivals Duke University and the University of North Carolina seemed to race toward a goal far removed from the basketball court: taking down their respective statues of Confederate soldiers.

Duke had the first big play: On Saturday, the university’s president ordered the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee be removed from the campus chapel’s entrance after it was vandalized.

UNC at Chapel Hill doesn’t seem far behind.

Margaret Spellings, the president of UNC, sent a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper (D) on Monday asking for his help addressing the “significant safety and security threats” related to “Silent Sam,” the Confederate memorial erected in 1913 to honor alumni who served in the Civil War. The recent toppling of a Confederate statue in downtown Durham and the damage to the statue of Lee at Duke have “added to a climate that threatens to make similar statues a flash point for violence that could spiral out of control,” she wrote.

Because Duke is a private school, the removal of Lee’s statue — which was separate from the chaotic toppling of the downtown statue — fell under the discretion of the university’s new president, Vincent Price, whose high-profile decision was one of the first of his seven-week tenure.


The statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at the entrance to Duke Chapel in Durham, N.C. (AP)

But 10 miles down the road at North Carolina’s flagship public university, the issue is more complicated.

A 2015 state law signed by former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory prevents the removal or relocation of monuments on public land without explicit permission from the North Carolina Historical Commission. But Cooper — a Democrat who wrote a lengthy post on Medium about why monuments to the Confederacy should come down — told Spellings in a letter Monday evening that if she thought the statue posed “a real risk to public safety,” then the law allowed the university remove it.

“If the University and its leadership believe such a dangerous condition is on campus, then the law gives it the authority to address those concerns,” Cooper wrote. “State law enforcement and emergency officials remain available to help and support the University as it navigates this process.”

While Cooper didn’t explicitly mention Duke, he seemed to refer to UNC’s Durham rival in his letter to Spellings.

“Other university leaders,” he wrote, “have taken decisive actions in recent days.”

Silent Sam, which was covered with a black hood last Sunday apparently by protesters, has long been the site of protests, according to the News and Observer. Activists’ calls to remove the statue were reignited following violence this month in Charlottesville, when a car driven by a reported white nationalist plowed into a crowd, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. As of Tuesday morning, a petition on change.org to remove Silent Sam had more than 5,000 signatures.

The “real risk to public safety” that Cooper described could come as soon as Tuesday evening, when demonstrators plan to rally around the statue on the edge of campus, according to a letter from UNC Chancellor Carol Folt.

“We know that the outside groups who may attend such a rally may be more interested in promoting discord and violence to advance their own agendas than engaging in a constructive and peaceful protest,” Folt wrote in her letter to the campus community Monday evening.

A flier circulated on social media for the protest on Tuesday — when classes for the fall semester begin — declare it “the first day of Silent Sam’s last semester.” The flier includes the hashtags #SilenceSam, #HeatherHeyer and #BlackLivesMatter.

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