Every so often in our political discourse comes a moment that presents elected officials with a crystal clear choice between right and wrong, something that rises far above the usual partisan differences on education, taxes or health care.
North Carolina now faces one of those moments in the wake of the march in Charlottesville by torch-carrying neo-Nazis and white supremacists chanting racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic slogans and the troubling reaction to the protest by the president of the United States.
The marchers were rallying around a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the event has prompted protests around the county about the existence of similar Confederate statues on public property, from university campuses to courthouses to town squares.
North Carolina has hundreds of the memorials and this is not the first time there has been debate about whether they should remain on public land, maintained and paid for by all North Carolinians.
The last time we had the debate was two years ago, after the massacre of parishioners at an African-American church in Charleston by avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley responded to the unspeakable tragedy by demanding the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds and though a few lawmakers there balked at first, the General Assembly voted to remove it.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory drew national praise at the same time for declaring the state of North Carolina would no longer offer special license plates bearing the Confederate battle flag, but the General Assembly ignored his request for a law banning the plates and they are still being sold today.
Also in 2015, after the murders in the Charleston church, the General Assembly passed a bill that McCrory signed that banned the state and local governments from removing monuments without permission from the N.C. Historical Commission.
Local governments that were allowed to erect the monuments are now not allowed to take them down.
Gov. Roy Cooper wants that law repealed in the wake of the Charlottesville white supremacy demonstration and he is exploring removing the Confederate monuments from state property at the same time.
Many Republicans haven’t said much about Cooper’s proposal, though Sen. Tommy Tucker believes the Civil War was about tariffs not slavery and wants the monuments to stay. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger wrote recently that he “would be hesitant” to repeal the 2015 law and that a decision to remove the Confederate monuments would not be wise.
Some folks on the Right are passionately defending the Confederate monuments, like the memorial on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill known as Silent Sam, echoing Tucker’s claims about the Civil War and claiming that the statue at UNC and others across the state honoring the Confederate cause are about heritage, not hate or slavery or white supremacy.
But that is simply not true and it is not an opinion. The vast majority of the monuments were not built right after the war, but 60 and 70 years later as part of the push to enact and enforce Jim Crow laws to rob African-Americans of the basic human rights they gained during Reconstruction.
Historians and journalists alike have pointed out the speech by industrialist Julian Carr at the dedication ceremony of the Silent Sam statue as evidence of that. Carr said that he at one point “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.”
He described the incident as a “pleasing duty.”
Sorry, there is no heritage there. It’s all hate. And maybe most remarkably, the accounts of the statue dedication don’t mention any outrage or protest about Carr’s horrific remarks.
Most people celebrating knew why they were there and what the memorial was honoring. And they still do.
Berger and Tucker and the rest of the legislative leadership need to read Carr’s remarks and then ask themselves what exactly there is to be “hesitant” about.
Silent Sam and the rest of the Confederate monuments need to come down. They do not belong on public property owned and maintained and honored by the people of North Carolina.
The outrage in Charlottesville has renewed the focus again on the history of slavery and lynchings and Jim Crow and we cannot look away this time and hope people move on.
The General Assembly is meeting in special session this week and next month, too. Imagine the message North Carolina and its leaders could send to the rest of the country if they repealed the 2015 law this week or next month in a bipartisan vote and demanded the state remove Confederate monuments from public property.
African-Americans whose ancestors were slaves, and the rest of us who are appalled at our history, have walked by the monuments long enough entering the courthouse or city hall or the UNC campus where Julian Carr spewed his racist views.
It is time for our elected officials, Republicans and Democrats alike, to respond to this moment, this crossroads in our history and do the moral and just thing. It is time for a clear statement that there are not too sides now, that slavery and white supremacy and bigotry are always wrong and so are the monuments that honor them.
Then let’s get back to our fierce debates about Medicaid, education, environmental policy, even the boundaries of legislative district lines. That is our system after all.
But let’s make an important statement about who we are as people first.
Chris Fitzsimon is founder and executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.