AFTER PROTESTERS at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill toppled the school’s Confederate statue known as Silent Sam, officials of the statewide university system issued a statement calling the action, among other things, “incomprehensible.” Actually, it is quite understandable for people to find a monument to white supremacy offensive and want it removed. And it’s not a surprise that citizens would take matters into their own hands when arbitrary curbs had been placed on local democracy.
The events Monday night, in which a crowd of about 250 students, faculty members and local residents stormed the statue and used ropes to bring it down, can be linked to the arrogance of state lawmakers in enacting a law that tied the hands of local officials in dealing with an issue of great community concern.
The bronze sculpture that towered over the historic quad at North Carolina’s flagship university — like many other Confederate monuments rooted in racism — had long been a source of controversy and pain. Calls for its removal intensified after protesters in nearby Durham, spurred by the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, last August toppled the statue of a Confederate soldier that had stood in front of the old Durham County courthouse. But even though Silent Sam’s removal was supported by a growing contingent that included Chapel Hill’s mayor and university officials who fretted it had become a safety concern (and who had spent nearly $400,000 on security), nothing happened.
A law enacted by the Republican-controlled legislature in 2015, similar to measures adopted by other Southern states wanting to preserve Confederate-themed memorials, barred removal without the consent of a state historical commission. That commission, meeting two days after Silent Sam was pulled from his pedestal, rejected a request to remove three Confederate monuments from the grounds of the state capitol in Raleigh, saying the 2015 law hamstrung what they could do with the requirement that memorials only be removed under such rare circumstances as to make way for major construction projects.
Gov. Roy Cooper (D) is right to argue that the law needs to be changed “so our state and its people have a better path to remove or relocate these monuments safely.” History can be preserved without enshrining painful symbols from the past, which, as Charlottesville showed, have become rallying places for white supremacists. “The actions that toppled Silent Sam bear witness to the strong feelings many North Carolinians have about Confederate monuments,” the governor said. “I don’t agree with or condone the way that monument came down, but protesters concluded that their leaders would not — could not — act on the frustration and pain it caused.”