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The most surprising thing about the toppling of “Silent Sam” on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus Monday night was that it took so long to happen. The statue of a Confederate soldier, standing with his rifle atop a stone pedestal, has been a magnet for controversy for years.
And as cities and states across the South have seen frequent protests and have wrestled with decisions about the nature, meaning and location of their many monuments to the Civil War and the soldiers who fought in it, North Carolina’s official position has been to do nothing. In fact, the General Assembly passed a law to make sure no cities, towns or counties did anything either. The law forbids taking down or moving Confederate monuments on public property without the General Assembly’s approval.
A state historic panel has moved slowly in its deliberations about policy regarding the monuments, and it was scheduled to meet this week to consider Gov. Roy Cooper’s request that some of the monuments be moved off public sites to places more appropriate — such as Confederate battlefields or museums.
Students, however, can be impatient. And as they returned to their Chapel Hill campus last weekend and saw there’d been no decisions made about Silent Sam, some of them prepared for the first day of classes by holding a demonstration. Signs and chants gave way to more aggressive action, and amid smoke bombs, they pulled the old statue down.
The official reaction was not sympathetic. Cooper said he “understands that many people are frustrated by the pace of change and shares their frustration, but violent destruction of public property has no place in our communities.”
UNC Chancellor Carol Folt said, “The monument has been divisive for years, and its presence has been a source of frustration for many people not only on our campus but throughout the community. However, last night’s actions were unlawful and dangerous, and we are very fortunate that no one was injured. The police are investigating the vandalism and assessing the full extent of the damage.”
House Speaker Tim Moore said, “There is no place for the destruction of property on our college campuses or in any North Carolina community; the perpetrators should be arrested and prosecuted by public safety officials to make clear that mob rule and acts of violence will not be tolerated in our state.”
And Senate leader Phil Berger added that “many of the wounds of racial injustice that still exist in our state and country were created by violent mobs and I can say with certainty that violent mobs won’t heal those wounds.”
We fully agree that what happened on the UNC campus Monday night was vandalism by a mob, and that can’t be tolerated. But statements like Berger’s are ignoring another truth about the wounds of racial injustice: A lot of them are made deeper by elected public officials who sit on their hands instead of finding commonsense, compromise solutions to our racial problems.
The students at UNC are doubtless aware of the real story behind the appearance of Silent Sam on their campus. The bronze figure was installed on his pedestal in 1913, paid for by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The dedication speech was delivered by tobacco tycoon Julian Carr, who praised Confederate veterans for ensuring that “the purest strain of the Anglo-Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern states” and proudly recounting the story of his horsewhipping an impertinent black woman only 100 yards away from the statue site.
As well as being a tribute to student-soldiers, it’s clear that Silent Sam was meant to be a reminder to blacks of the doctrine of white supremacy that was prevalent then and is still too much with us today.
Mob vandalism won’t solve the problem, but neither will legislative inaction or indifference. We hope this incident leads to solutions more thoughtful than what we’ve gotten from our legislative leaders so far.