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'Silent Sam' a symbol for the past, and the future

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Sunday, August 26, 2018

The simmering frustration among many citizens to remove symbols glorifying the "lost cause" of the Civil War erupted last week in an assault at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Fortunately, it wasn't an assault that brought great human suffering — at least none requiring medical attention. Rather, it was an attack on "Silent Sam," one of the state's most visible and controversial monuments to the Confederacy, because it is located on the UNC campus.

There, the action was orchestrated by a group of like-minded protesters whose ranks nationwide have grown in recent years, raising more public awareness of the 700-plus Confederate monuments scattered across the South. The great majority of the monuments were erected about a century ago, as the Jim Crow era emerged, to remind citizens of the soldiers who fought and died defending the South and its slavery-dependent culture.

Last Monday, protesters in Chapel Hill ripped down the metal "Sam" and celebrated destruction of the monument, one of many that have suffered such a fate in recent years. A Confederate monument just up the road on the campus of Duke University was vandalized and later removed last August. Another Confederate statue in front of the old Durham County Courthouse was also pulled down by protesters in August 2017. 

Outside of North Carolina, several states and communities have witnessed similar fervor for removing monuments to the Confederacy. Many have moved them from public properties to warehouses or to other more appropriate locations, such as museums, where the monuments' historical context can be accurately portrayed and fittingly explained.

That would have been a better fate for "Silent Sam." Unfortunately, the N.C. Legislature made that impossible in 2015 when it passed a law preventing removal of historical monuments from public property anywhere in the state. Had the Legislature more wisely considered individual cities and towns the better authority on managing citizens' views about monuments, perhaps the fate of "Silent Sam" would have been different.

Frustrated at being given no alternatives, protesters took matters into their own hands — violating the law on removal of the monument as well as committing vandalism, destruction of public property and other related crimes. Of course the law is clear, and neither North Carolina nor any other state can look the other way when laws are broken. Those responsible have to be charged and prosecuted. Others who would consider such acts must be deterred and cautioned to exercise restraint until better laws allow for better solutions.

For now, the actions in Chapel Hill require the consequence of criminal charges. As has been proven time again, however, the monument protests are likely to gain history's endorsement in the longer term.

Public attitudes — and moments of human progress — are revealed by actions and events. There are numerous iconic moments just in the last century that offer a wealth of examples illustrating the preferred path away from eras of prejudice, discrimination, subjugation — and the symbols that sustain them. Consider how women took to the streets, taunted and threatened, in protest for the right to vote in this country. Mahatma Ghandi and his followers, in their non-violent protest, stood up to brutal resistance from their British rulers to gain India’s independence. And, of course, black Americans have suffered a painful, violent and often deadly response in the march toward equality.

The fall of "Silent Sam" seems a small skirmish against the backdrop of those historic struggles. But our history demonstrates the inevitability of the public's embrace of freedom and individual rights —and the progressive disappearance of institutions and symbols that stand in the way.

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