Remove Confederate symbols of control, contempt


Sunday, August 20, 2017

Two years ago, following the murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston by a white supremacist who was inspired by Confederate imagery, many communities across the South, including this one, were forced to confront their own connection to the Confederacy.

The confrontation in Elizabeth City came in the form of a debate over the continued presence of a monument to the Confederacy on the Pasquotank County Courthouse green. The monument was erected in 1911 by the United Daughters of Confederacy, a group that helped build similar monuments in other towns and cities across North Carolina, as well as in other Southern states that had seceded from the Union a half-century earlier.

The debate over keeping Pasquotank’s Confederate monument didn’t last long.

The head of the Pasquotank chapter of the NAACP asked the county Board of Commissioners to remove the monument, calling it a symbol of racism and oppression and a commemoration of those who fought to keep black people in chains. But after hearing NAACP President Keith Rivers, and listening to mostly white citizens angry the idea of removal was even being considered, commissioners agreed, by a split vote, to keep the monument where it is.

Not long afterward, state lawmakers in Raleigh removed the possibility of any future debates over the removal of Confederate monuments — even like the short one that took place in Elizabeth City. They passed, and former Gov. Pat McCrory signed, the Historical Artifact and Patriotism Act of 2015. The law bans state agencies and local governments from taking down any “object of remembrance” on public property that “commemorates an event, a person, or military service that is part of North Carolina’s history.” The law in effect prohibits any removal of Confederate statues or monuments in North Carolina. 

Before commissioners decided not to move the Pasquotank monument, this newspaper asked them to have the Community Relations Commission — the group of citizens they, along with city council, appoint to work for community harmony — to study the NAACP’s request. Rather than removing the monument, we believed then that the commission could study ways to incorporate it into some larger educational exhibit about the history of slavery and how the Civil War was fought to end it.

We’ve now changed our minds. In the wake of new white supremacist-inspired violence in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend, we believe it is time for all monuments to the Confederacy to come down, or at the very least be removed from public property, unless they can be displayed — such as in a museum — in an appropriate and accurate context of the nation’s racial history.

These monuments have become nothing but a rallying point for white supremacists and white nationalists, who believe their “culture” is being supplanted by America’s growing diversity. These groups pine for the days — like the days of the Confederacy and the Jim Crow era that followed — when white people ruled and people of color were seen but not heard. 

And that’s the problem with keeping Confederate monuments in places of prominence like our courthouse square. They remain a visible symbol of the struggle by white supremacists, first through secession in the 1860s, and then during the nearly 100-year Jim Crow era that followed it, to keep black people in submission. 

We don’t have to imagine what black citizens feel when they have to walk past the Confederate monument to get to the courthouse. Just ask Cecil Perry, the chairman of our county’s board of commissioners, and Bettie Parker, a commissioner and candidate for city mayor this fall. Both will tell you about the anger they feel when they see this last remaining public vestige of the white supremacy — segregated schools, lunch counters and public water fountains are now gone — that they’ve had to face in their own lifetime.

Supporters of keeping the monuments in places of prominence choose to ignore or discount these feelings of black citizens. They like to focus on what they call the “history” of the monuments, describing them as simple marble artifacts containing no ulterior meaning. What they choose to ignore is the timing of when the monuments were erected.

All went up, not immediately after the Civil War when blacks initially enjoyed some fruits of the Union’s victory — the right to vote, the right to travel, and the right to disagree — but instead during the Jim Crow era, when Southern whites had regained full control of social, cultural and political life in the former Confederate states and started imposing new restrictions on black citizens. The monuments were designed to remind blacks — who by then couldn’t complain about the statues because they had lost the right to vote — who was in charge. The monuments were also a show of contempt for the federal government — a sign that stated emphatically, “We may have lost the war, but we’re in power here now.”

Monument supporters have a host of arguments for keeping them. They say monuments like the one next to the Pasquotank courthouse stand in honor of the Confederate war dead, not slaveholders or the leadership of the Confederacy. The trouble with that argument is that all Confederate monuments commemorate people who betrayed their country in support of the right to buy and sell human beings like chickens and cows, the right to brutalize people, and the right to break up families of black slaves simply to pay off a debt.

Gov. Roy Cooper took the first step last week toward achieving some healing for the pain the monuments have caused, calling for the Legislature to repeal the law it passed two years ago so that communities across the state can legally remove Confederate monuments if they decide to do so. Thus far, state lawmakers, if GOP Senate President Phil Berger’s reaction is any indication, don’t seem inclined to follow Cooper’s advice.

We believe that would be a mistake. Lawmakers should at least allow communities like Elizabeth City to have a purposeful debate on whether the monuments should be moved. If they won’t, if lawmakers refuse to permit a democratic outlet for decision-making, we believe many of the Confederate monuments and statues will still come down — but not legally. They’ll be pulled down like the one in Durham was last week. For communities like ours, dialogue and leadership is a much preferred avenue to guide removal of a Civil War monument.