Penn State should be applauded for tearing down the statue of Joe Paterno that had graced the front of its football stadium.
The state of North Carolina should follow suit and remove the 75-foot-tall monument to our Confederate dead that rises over the grounds of the state Capitol.
Like Penn State, we would be acknowledging that a source of pride has become a symbol of shame. This would not – it could not – erase the past (if only it were that easy). Paterno’s specter will long loom over Happy Valley just as surely as the Civil War and Jim Crow era are still palpable presences in our state. Tearing down this singularly prominent monument would send a powerful message that we know our history well enough, care about it deeply enough, to control it.
We do not build monuments to remember the past; we erect them to reflect our best values, hopes and achievements.
Penn State had honored Paterno because he seemed to embody its strengths. When the Freeh Report found that he had protected the reputation of his football program instead of the safety of youngsters, the school concluded that his image no longer sent the proper message.
Announcing his decision to remove the statue, Penn State President Rodney Erickson said that “contrary to its original intention,” the statue “has become a source of division and an obstacle to healing.”
Paterno was not a monster. He was a decent man who made monstrous choices. We do harm when we consider people either sinners or saints.
The same is true of those who fought for the confederacy. Too many North Carolinians lost their lives, often heroically, during the Civil War. It is right that we honor their sacrifices even as we recognize that slavery was at the core of their lost cause.
The monument, however, is as much a symbol of those who built it as of those it honors. It is less a story of the Civil War than of the white supremacy campaign of the 1890s that ushered in the brutal era of Jim Crow.
The drumbeat for the monument began in the 1880s and support mounted until the elections of 1894 when a coalition of white Populists and mostly black Republicans took control of the state house. Not surprisingly, leaders of this new “fusion” government balked at providing the money needed to complete it.
In response, Democrats used race-baiting techniques to bully the legislature, criticizing it for passing a resolution honoring the recently deceased black leader Frederick Douglass “while delaying the promised $10,000 loan for the monument.”
Two weeks before the monument was dedicated, Raleigh voters, spurred on by white supremacist cartoons in the Democratic Party’s main organ, The News & Observer, rejected fusionist legislation that would have permitted the direct election of officials. The triumphant N&O headline proclaimed: “The City Still Ours ... No Negro Rule in Raleigh.”
That was the backdrop for the dedication ceremony on May 20, 1895. A crowd of perhaps 30,000 people listened as the featured speaker, Alfred Moore Waddell, cast the Confederate dead as American patriots.
Waddell would later earn lasting infamy in 1898 as a leader of the statewide campaign that used the explicit language of white supremacy, violence and vote-stealing to defeat the fusionists.
As a result, blacks across North Carolina were denied even the semblance of equality until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. During those bleak decades, the Confederate monument was a towering symbol of the state’s oppressive power structure.
Like Paterno’s fallen statue, our monument to the Confederate dead no longer represents the best values and hopes of our state. Just as Penn State has decided to leave the coach's name on the Paterno Library, it is appropriate that we commemorate our soldiers. They should never be forgotten. But they – and their white supremacist supporters – should not be memorialized in the rich and singular place of honor they now enjoy.
Former N&O staffer J. Peder Zane is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Augustine’s College.