A century and a half after the South surrendered, the likenesses of Confederate soldiers could be ordered to retreat for their own safety.
The North Carolina Historical Commission is weighing Gov. Roy Cooper’s petition to relocate three Confederate monuments from the old state Capitol grounds to the Bentonville Battlefield state historic site. The gist of his request is that vandals may damage or destroy the statues where they now stand.
A national movement to mothball such memorials spread after a white supremacist struck and killed a protester with his car during dueling demonstrations over the fate of a Robert E. Lee statue last August in Charlottesville, Virginia. Many say the stone-hewn rebels don’t mourn Civil War casualties but instead glorify the Confederate cause, which is inextricably linked to slavery.
Monuments were quietly removed across the country — in Baltimore, officials dismantled them in the dead of night to avoid clashes between supporters and opponents — but that couldn’t happen in the Tar Heel State.
Rightly or wrongly, the General Assembly passed a 2015 law that prevents government agencies from moving historical monuments. Statues can’t be “removed, relocated or altered in any way” without the historical commission’s approval, and the panel can only weigh in under two circumstances: “When appropriate measures are required by the state or a political subdivision of the state to preserve the object” or “when necessary for construction, renovation or reconfiguration of buildings, open spaces, parking or transportation projects.”
Cooper’s petition cites the first reason. He’s asking the commission to take “appropriate measures” to preserve the statues by moving them from the Capitol to the Bentonville site in Four Oaks.
The law’s wording is hazy, but the implication of using this loophole is clear: The monuments could be damaged or destroyed by vandals, toppled like the statue in front of the former Durham County Courthouse.
That doesn’t sit well with R. Kevin Stone, commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ North Carolina Division.
“Public safety does not come into play just because a statue or a monument may offend someone,” Stone said in a prepared statement released Thursday. “Nor does public safety come into play when there is a threat that a mob may try to tear down a monument it dislikes.”
Stone’s analysis is spot-on. Those who support moving the monuments hang their hopes on the dubious theory that controversy swirling around the statues itself justifies their removal. It’s a neat bit of circular logic that brings to mind the heckler’s veto, a phenomenon that occurs when speakers are silenced due to listeners’ outbursts and overreactions.
Activists who tore down the Durham statue were not merely demonstrators exercising their free-speech rights. Instead of organizing, marching, lobbying and voting, they lashed out in aggression and damaged public property. That isn’t protest, it’s just plain old vandalism.
“Here’s the bottom line,” Stone said. “Government should not give in to a mob. Instead, government should uphold the rule of law.”
The historical commission is seeking public comments on the governor’s petition at https://www.ncdcr.gov/comment-relocation-monuments ahead of an April meeting. Those who wish to weigh in on the subject are invited to submit written comments, which become public record, through the online form on that web page.
State Senate leader Phil Berger has criticized Cooper for taking his plea to the panel, foreshadowing a legal battle if the process moves forward.
“(T)he North Carolina Historical Commission does not even have the authority to grant your request, and it would likely lose in court if and when North Carolinians sued over the removal of the monuments,” Berger, R-Rockingham, wrote in a Sept. 21 letter to the Democratic governor.
We think the effort to justify removing the statues for their own protection strains credulity and doesn’t square with state law. The end result will be taxpayer money wasted in needless litigation.
That said, we recognize that Confederate monuments represent slavery and discrimination to many North Carolinians. Whether it’s appropriate for these statues to tower over public spaces or whether their historical context can be better understood at museums or Civil War battlefields is a conversation worth having.
Current law freezes the memorials in place. Moving them to alternate sites is a public policy question for our elected state lawmakers, not a simple matter of monument conservation for a committee of scholars and historians to decide.