Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Tuesday, August 21, 2018 7:48 pm

So long, Silent Sam

Filed under: Uncategorized — Lex @ 7:48 pm

“Silent Sam,” the statue on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that was built to honor the university’s Confederate Civil War dead, was toppled last night. That act almost certainly was a crime, and the perpetrators should be prepared to pay the price. But it also was a righteous act of civil disobedience. Life is complicated.

The statue, paid for by university alumni and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, was a monument to a myth, the Confederate “Lost Cause”  — the notion that the Civil War was about anything except slavery and white supremacism — that has left toxic residue in our politics and culture even today. The Union won the war, but the Confederacy won Reconstruction, with results that reach even into today’s White House and the N.C. General Assembly.

It was erected not in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, but roughly 50 years later, in 1913, as the Confederacy and its leaders were enjoying a wholly undeserved reputational rehabilitation.

Similar statues and monuments were being built not only across the states of the late Confederacy but in other states as well. It is not a coincidence that the Ku Klux Klan was enjoying a great expansion of its ranks as well. And it doesn’t take inference to understand that white supremacy was behind it all. Julian Carr, the Civil War veteran and ardent white supremacist who gave the dedication speech, made it plain:

The present generation, I am persuaded, scarcely takes note of what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war [that is, when former Confederate soldiers terrorized freed blacks and Republican whites across the South — Lex] when the facts are, that their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South – When “the bottom rail was on top” all over the Southern states, and to-day, as a consequence the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States – Praise God.

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.

People of color despised the statue not just because of what it symbolized but also because of what it celebrated. And it is understandable that they would do so: Statues aren’t just “history,” but also indicate those people and things that we as a society celebrate. Silent Same stopped doing that a long time ago — praise God.

But there had been efforts and discussions underway for decades about what to do with Silent Sam — leave him where he was on public ground or move him, perhaps to a museum or privately owned Confederate graveyard. Left to themselves, those discussions might have led to a solution that all sides could have lived with, if not been happy about.

But the Republicans in the N.C. General Assembly, who have never met a situation they couldn’t make worse, on race relations or pretty much anything else, passed a vague and ill-considered law in 2015 protecting all such monuments on public property. (My friend and former colleague Joe Killian posted almost exactly a year ago on this subject, after a Confederate monument in Durham had been toppled.) Democrats even filed a bill in the legislature earlier this year to move the statue, but Republicans wouldn’t even give it a hearing. So there was no outlet for rational discussion that might have led to a workable solution.

To be clear, I do not condone criminality, full stop. Those who committed the crime should be prepared to do the time. That said, tearing down the statue when all other avenues of addressing the issues it raised had been cut off fits squarely within the tradition of righteous civil disobedience. I hope the court in its wisdom recognizes these actions as such and imposes minimal punishment, should anyone be convicted.

And to those suggesting that the statue should be left in place because of history, I have a question: How many of you were worried about history when U.S. forces toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 2003? Well, it’s about the same thing.

 

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