The betrayal that is the ‘Silent Sam’ deal

By: - December 16, 2019 3:31 pm

When leaders of the N.C. Council of Churches two years ago adopted a policy statement entitled “Confederate-themed monuments: Time to reassess,” the statue known as Silent Sam still faced north in a prime spot on the Chapel Hill campus of the nation’s oldest public university.

But the image of a youthful soldier – cast as a tribute to University of North Carolina students who fought and in many cases died for the South in the Civil War – was emerging at the center of a raging debate over how to treat monuments honoring a cause rooted in the defense of slavery.

The Council’s Governing Board noted what it termed an inescapable truth: “Monuments that have the effect of glorifying the South’s Lost Cause and of venerating those who were its defenders must be seen as sympathetic to, or at the least heedless of, the racial oppression that the Confederacy was dedicated to upholding.”

The board called for “a re-examination of the roles of civic images hearkening back to an era when racial injustice was our state’s official policy – a policy so deeply ingrained that torrents of blood were spilled to defend it and to defeat it.”

By Aug. 20, 2018, such a re-examination of Silent Sam was well underway but mired in dispute among university leaders, legislators, the governor’s office, anti-white supremacy activists and neo-Confederate apologists. Protesters who for months had sought the statue’s removal – with no significant progress – took matters into their own hands and unlawfully pulled it down. Reassess this, they seemed to say.

Who would have imagined that, with the connivance of UNC-Chapel Hill’s university system overlords, the last word and a boast of victory would be granted to none other than the Sons of Confederate Veterans? Granted, that is, unless a secretive and slippery deal’s understandably outraged opponents somehow manage to roll it back.

McCorkle’s guardian

A committee of the UNC system’s Board of Governors, tasked with figuring out what to do with the statue that had been hidden away in storage since it was toppled, fended off the predictable calls to re-erect it on leafy McCorkle Place where it had stood for 105 years.

Its location had seemed to make Silent Sam a sentinel guarding the Chapel Hill campus from Northern invaders and, eventually, from civil rights sympathizers. That no doubt would have suited the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who sponsored the statue and others like it. The group’s implicit goal was to depict the South’s doomed war effort as a noble defense of home and hearth instead of a desperate attempt to sustain a social system dependent on monstrous oppression of African-Americans.

A compromise plan floated by then-Chancellor Carol Folt to keep the statue on campus, displayed in a new history center, had fizzled amid opposition to an ongoing campus presence. Folt announced last January that she planned to quit after her surprise decision to have the statue’s pedestal with its cringe-worthy pro-Confederate plaques dismantled – a decision that led the Board of Governors to tell her to go ahead and clear out.

But the board’s aforementioned committee – which could have chosen among many ways to treat the statue as a significant artifact while removing it as a source of conflict at UNC-Chapel Hill – angled for a plan guaranteed to turn up the heat even more.

In a closely choreographed series of legally and ethically dubious moves that oozed contempt for Silent Sam’s critics, the committee on Nov. 27 managed to reach a court-approved deal giving the statue to a high-profile “Southern heritage” group.

Not only do the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) stand to claim the statue, but they also are in line to receive $2.5 million from UNC-Chapel Hill to finance a display facility. The regional office of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law laid out a blistering analysis of the deal’s legal and procedural shortcomings that could and should lay the basis for scuttling it.

Meanwhile, state Attorney General Josh Stein was among those making the obvious point that the university could put the money to far better use in line with its educational mission. Stein’s next step should be clear: Instruct the Board of Governors to hit the brakes.

The SCV’s North Carolina division president, Kevin Stone, told members in a letter (accessible via the above link) that he envisions using the payout also to build a new headquarters.

“What we have accomplished is something that I never dreamed we could accomplish in a thousand years and all at the expense of the University itself,” Stone wrote after the deal was finalized. “This is a major strategic victory, and I look forward to continuing to move the Division forward.” That’s not exactly what those who view the SCV as perpetuators of white supremacist ideology in the guise of ancestor worship want to encourage – especially with the university system’s collaboration.

Echoes of Charlottesville

The Council of Churches’ effort to address how Confederate monuments should fit into today’s civic and cultural landscape, given evolving perspectives on the consequences of racism, followed the events of August 2017 in Charlottesville, Va.

City officials’ decision to remove a statue of horse-mounted Gen. Robert E. Lee – a decision reflecting shock at the recent murder of black church members in Charleston, S.C., by a white-supremacist sociopath — led to a “Unite the Right” rally of white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

Activists from across the ideological divide rallied in opposition. One of them was killed when she was struck by a car that a white supremacy sympathizer drove into a crowd. Clearly, the mix of emotions stirred by Confederate statues and monuments could flare into violence.

But the risk to public safety was far from the whole problem. Pro-Confederate monuments and mythologizing had surged during the early years of the 20th century, in tandem with the tightening of strict Jim Crow laws solidifying African-Americans’ status as second-class citizens. These artifacts thus became enduring symbols of one of the United States’ most shameful chapters.

From the Council’s perspective, with its concern for the marginalized in keeping with Scriptural teachings, there emerged a duty to reassess the monuments so as not to endorse, explicitly or implicitly, the kind of discrimination they evoked.

The Council thus backed Gov. Roy Cooper’s call for repeal of a 2015 law enacted by the Republican-controlled General Assembly that was intended to keep local communities or institutions from relocating, phasing out or otherwise demoting Confederate “objects of remembrance.” That very law, as it happens, prevented UNC-Chapel Hill leaders from removing Silent Sam in orderly fashion because they thought it would be in the public interest. A mob paid the law no never-mind.

“Monuments given civic pride of place should reflect our most treasured values – and not those treasured by one segment of the public while loathed by another,” the Council’s governors stated. “They should be values at the foundation of our democracy – perhaps none so important as that all of us are created equal and are equally entitled to the privileges and protections of citizenship.”

Equal protection and equal opportunity under the law indeed are supposed to lie at the very heart of America’s democratic system. Surely they are essential to protecting those who must struggle to overcome the sorry legacy of racial bigotry that still shadows many of our fellow citizens. Any outcome in the Silent Sam saga that seems to excuse or overlook that discrimination must be judged as failing to meet the Council’s standards while also betraying ideals that should be fundamental to our university system and to our elected leaders.

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches.

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Steve Ford
Steve Ford

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, wrote this commentary for the North Carolina Council of Churches, which was first to publish it at