In 1965, UNC student Al Ribak wrote a letter to the editors of the Daily Tar Heel headlined “Silent Sam Should Leave.” Fifty-three years later, Silent Sam is gone – brought down by more than 250 University of North Carolina students, alumni and community activists.
It was just a year ago that a similar sight appeared in Durham, where protesters brought down the Confederate monument shortly after the death of Heather Heyer, a counter-protester at a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
White supremacy is what this Confederate monument represented on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill and across the nation.
For how much time has gone into memorializing and associating these monuments with the Civil War, it’s almost laughable to think that even Robert E. Lee believed Confederate monuments should not be erected in the South.
The Southern Poverty Law Center found that an overwhelming percentage of the monuments were erected decades after the Civil War ended, during the Jim Crow era and in response to the civil rights movement. If this monument doesn’t represent white supremacy, why were it and statues like it consistently erected in response to black and other historically marginalized people making progress?
Many people believe removing the monument at UNC is erasing history. We can remember our dark history in museums and classrooms, and through storytelling. They do not deserve to stand on a pedestal in the middle of our university.
We are a community reckoning with that gruesome history. And for more than 50 years, students have tried to work within the institution to have this statue removed.
In 1971, the Black Student Movement and the Afro-American Society of Chapel Hill High held a protest at Silent Sam in memory of James Cates, a young black man murdered in the Pit by members of a white motorcycle gang.
Between the 1970s and 2000s, gatherings, debates and letters to the Daily Tar Heel centered on Silent Sam and the historic inequities plaguing students of color.
In 2011, students, faculty, staff and community members founded the Real Silent Sam Coalition to bring historical accuracy to the physical and mental landscapes at UNC-Chapel Hill and our surrounding communities.
Today’s student and community have continued to build on the work of those before them.
UNC students and activists eventually ran out of legal options when the General Assembly moved to protect such statues by eliminating any means of removal.
Gov. Roy Cooper attempted to give the school administrators a way to remove the statue, citing a public-safety loophole in the law. They told him he was wrong, and Silent Sam endured.
So what could the students do? What do you do after 50 years of trying to take down one statue?
Former President John F. Kennedy once said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that activists finally acted and sought justice by other means.
Instead of speaking poorly of students who have attempted to engage administration, to no avail, maybe we should look at the institutions that have ignored decades of requests.
Ebony West is a 2018 graduate of the University of North Carolina’s Master of Public Administration program. She lives in Raleigh and is the Young Democrats of North Carolina’s representative to the Democratic National Committee.