It is hard to find words that seriously address the tragedy that occurred yesterday in Charlottesville, Virginia. White-supremacists, Neo-Nazis, skinheads, and other groups came together to “Unite the Right”, the cause celebre du jour being the proposed removal of a prominent statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The result was one dead counter-protester, a number of injured parties on both sides, and an ugly stain on our country’s national psyche.
For over twenty years, I’ve lived in the South, in a small college town not unlike Charlottesville. The UNC campus features its own monument to the boys in gray. Silent Sam stands as a prominent centerpiece in McCorkle Place, the symbolic heart of the campus. University Trustees have placed a sixteen-year moratorium on renaming buildings or removing monuments.
There are other monuments honoring the Confederacy nearby, in Pittsboro, Durham, and Raleigh. In fact, according to an article in the Raleigh News & Observer, there are more Confederate monuments in North Carolina than in any other state except Georgia. Most of these monuments were built long after the end of the civil war as symbols of the Lost Cause of slavery, during the Jim Crow era. Silent Sam was erected in 1913.
The opponents of removing these monuments and other symbols of the Confederacy from the public square have built their arguments on a claim of honoring the historical heritage of their dead forebears who fought alongside General Lee. But that argument has never really held up to scrutiny.
When Silent Sam was erected, it was fifteen short years after the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898, when the largely white Democrat party, having lost control of state government, staged the violent overthrow of duly elected bi-racial city officials, a coup d’etat on American soil. When the statue was dedicated, Julian Carr, for whom my town is named, presided as the president of North Carolina’s United Confederate Veterans. In Carr’s speech, he praised the Confederates for preserving “the very life of the Anglo-Saxon race in the South,” and without a thought of decorum or decency bragged of horse-whipping a Negro until “her skirt hung in shreds.” Such is the beloved heritage these statues represent.
Yesterday, if there was any further doubt or confusion about the real meaning of these symbols, it was all too easy to see in the sweaty, pasty-faced, undercut-coiffed faces of the alt-right supporters in Charlottesville. Parading alongside Confederate flags, Nazi flags were openly on display, along with sundry banners festooned with white-supremacist iconography. Signs reading “You will not replace us” and shouts of “Blood and Soil”, an infamous Nazi chant, were reported by witnesses in Charlottesville.
Let’s be clear, I have no difficulty recognizing a legitimate need to honor the valor of dead. But we have an obligation to the truth as well. Southern secession was clearly about slavery. The state rights that Southerner’s fought for was the right to extend slavery in the West, and to ensure federal enforcement of the fugitive slave act. Had the South won the civil war they surely would have extended the rights of slave owners to newly recognized territories, and indeed to the whole of our country.
The fundamental principle that human bondage depends on is a rejection of human equality across lines of race, tribal identity, or religion. The white supremacists marching in Charlottesville could not have been less clear: they firmly believe white people are superior to any other racial group, and mistakenly believe that their identity as whites is under threat.
The truth is that there is no place for that kind of hate-driven ideology in today’s world. The Confederate flag, Confederate monuments, and the hate-filled rhetoric they inspire must be recognized as cancers on our nation. When apartheid was abandoned in South Africa, that nation embarked on a process of truth and reconciliation. We’ve never had that kind of discussion about the Civil War, the Jim Crow era, or any of the tragic events of the civil rights era in the sixties. We can’t simply sweep these issues under the rug. In effect, the sixteen-year moratorium on removal of monuments introduced by the UNC trustees attempts to do just that, kicking the can of accountability down the road.
If ever there was an inflection point that demands a change, it is today. In light of the events of the past forty-eight hours in Charlottesville, the time has come to remove Silent Sam and its legacy of hate from the UNC campus.