Silent Sam is a Confederate soldier statue on the campus of the University of North Carolina, and Monday night, after years of controversy, a group of students pulled it down:
Before we discuss the rightness or wrongness of this act (hint: rightness), let's get a few facts straight.
1. Republicans in North Carolina will dance their usual two-step, claiming that Silent Sam is merely a symbol of heritage, meant to honor the fallen soldiers of the Confederacy. That's nonsense—it was erected not in the post-War era, but in 1913 at the height of Jim Crow. The explicit purpose was to intimidate black citizens and curtail the growing movement for equal rights. And it was happening all over the south. Per the Southern Poverty Law Center:
But two distinct periods saw significant spikes. The first began around 1900 as Southern states were enacting Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise African Americans and re-segregate society after several decades of integration that followed Reconstruction. It lasted well into the 1920s, a period that also saw a strong revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Many of these monuments were sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Silent Sam fits right into that period—erected in 1913, funded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. And if you doubted it was about white supremacy rather than vague ideas of “heritage,” read this passage from Julian Carr's speech at the dedication ceremony:
I trust I may be pardoned for one allusion, howbeit it is rather personal. One hundred yards from where we stand, less than ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I 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, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers. I performed the pleasing duty in the immediate presence of the entire garrison, and for thirty nights afterwards slept with a double-barrel shot gun under my head.
So, in summary: Silent Sam is, above all else, a symbol of racist hate and intimidation.
2. It was not coming down on its own.
The “moderates” on this issue would have greatly preferred for the statue to come down legally, or for it to be placed in a museum, or something less sudden and violent. But Republicans and the university itself were not letting that happen. Republicans in the state's General Assembly passed a “Heritage Protection Act” in 2015 to prevent anyone from removing the statue, and UNC was scared enough by potential consequences to leave it standing—even after Democratic governor Roy Cooper essentially gave them permission to use a “public safety” loophole. Republicans, acting with a foresight that would be impressive if it weren't so sinister, even included a clause that stated “an object of remembrance may not be relocated to a museum.”
As I wrote almost one year ago today, this tactic put UNC into a state of paralysis, and their institutional cowardice kept Silent Sam on the quad. Republicans had achieved the stalemate they wanted.
So, let's consider these two facts. First, Silent Sam is a slap in the face not just to any black or minority student at UNC, but also to any white student with a sense of empathy or justice. It's easy to call monuments like these “a legacy of hatred,” but in fact it wasn't a legacy at all—it was active, it was present. Second, everybody in power had let them down, and the indications were that it would stand forever. For UNC, preserving decorum and avoiding a fight were more important than taking a stand on behalf of its students. With their inaction, they broadcast a very simple message: On our campus, symbols of institutional racism are acceptable.
Under those conditions, there was only one way the statue was coming down.
And come down it did, in defiance of Republican maneuvering and in defiance of the coward Carol Folt, UNC's feckless chancellor. Here was Folt's repsonse:
“Last night’s actions were unlawful and dangerous.”
Yup, that’s about right. It’s craven all by itself, but it also fits perfectly into a centrist pattern of rolling over for Republicans, and the deep-rooted belief that following rules is more important than doing what’s right.
What the students did was against the rules. But the truth is that the rules failed them, and on those grounds I congratulate everyone at UNC who played a part in taking down Silent Sam. We’re in for weeks of civility takes from right and center here in North Carolina (“you’re going to drive everyone to the right!”), and it’s going to be insufferable, but last night we saw the students take matters into their own hands and achieve the right outcome. Their school won’t support them, the right will demonize them, and the mainstream media will carry the right’s water (as always), but unlike everyone else in this stupid, hateful saga, they had the courage of their convictions.