With protesters set to rally on campus for the removal of a controversial Confederate memorial, UNC-Chapel Hill got North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper’s blessing Monday night to take the statue down.
Tuesday afternoon, just a few hours before the protest was scheduled to begin, UNC announced it would keep the statue up for now.
Silent Sam, which stands on a campus quad just steps away from the busy downtown strip, was erected in 1913. The plaque says it honors students who left school to go fight for the Confederacy and it has, in recent years, been the focus of protesters who call it a monument to white supremacy.
Cooper’s letter to university leaders came a few days after Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger asked UNC to seek permission from the state to take Silent Sam down. A state law passed in 2015 and signed by Cooper’s predecessor, Republican Pat McCrory, forbade the removal of any such monuments on public property without approval from a state historic commission.
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Cooper told university leaders there’s a loophole in the law that allows for statues to be removed if there are public safety concerns.
However, the university officials said Tuesday that they didn’t believe Cooper’s analysis was correct. The law says the safety concerns have to be pointed out by “a building inspector or similar official” – which apparently hasn’t happened.
“The University is now caught between conflicting legal interpretations of the statute from the Governor and other legal experts,” UNC’s public relations staff said in an email.
They added that while they agree with Cooper that the campus would probably be safer without Silent Sam, they don’t think they can use that logic as an excuse to take it down.
A Charlottesville rally over plans to take down a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, where a white supremacist allegedly murdered a counter-protester, showed the issue can attract violence. And on Monday, a man was arrested and charged with plotting to plant a bomb on a Confederate statue in Houston.
“Based on law enforcement agencies’ assessments, we continue to believe that removing the Confederate Monument is in the best interest of the safety of our campus, but the university can act only in accordance with the laws of the state of North Carolina,” the school’s statement said.
The university’s handling of the situation won praise from House Speaker Tim Moore.
“I am pleased the University of North Carolina responded to threats of criminal vandalism in the measured and thoughtful manner our state can expect from one of the leading universities in the world,” Moore, a Kings Mountain Republican, said in a statement released Tuesday. “It is clear their utmost priority is the public’s safety and the protection of the campus community.
“Acquiescing to threats of criminal vandalism and confrontation sets a dangerous precedent that state law can be circumvented in the presence of potentially violent intimidations.”
Repeal protections for monuments?
Cooper has called on legislators to repeal the 2015 law that limits the removal of statues and memorials from public grounds, but his stance has received pushback from Republican leaders who control the N.C. General Assembly.
Senate leader Phil Berger wrote a lengthy statement after the Charlottesville violence. Berger said he and many of his colleagues in the Senate would oppose the removal of “all” of North Carolina’s 100-plus Confederate memorials, although he said he did understand the other side’s arguments and agreed that “more need needs to be done” to address racial divisions.
Republican Sen. Jim Davis – who sponsored the bill to stop statues from being taken down – said after the Charlottesville rally that he would oppose any efforts to repeal the law. Davis, who represents the far western part of the state, said Confederate memorials aren’t about white supremacy.
Rep. Verla Insko, a Democrat who represents Chapel Hill, said she thinks removing Silent Sam is a good idea.
“If there’s any danger that the statue would be destroyed, or used to promote violence, then I think it’s in the best interest of the community to have it stored somewhere,” she said Tuesday. “... I mean, we have differences of opinion, but we have to acknowledge them. Violence is not going to solve the problem.”
Rep. Darren Jackson of Wake County, the top Democrat in the N.C. House, said he supported Cooper’s call and thought there might be room for compromise.
“Sam should be moved,” he said. “Maybe to the cemetery if really (a) memorial for (the) dead?”
A Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll released Monday found 54 percent of Americans thought Confederate statues shouldn’t be taken down, and another fifth of those polled didn’t have strong feelings one way or the other.
The state’s Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter blasted Cooper last week in a post that at least one legislator, Republican Rep. Mike Clampitt of Bryson City, shared on Facebook.
“Cooper and his supporters will start with Confederate monuments and will soon be tearing down any and every historical reference that offends their bigoted sensibilities until the very foundation of our nation is wiped from the face of the earth,” the post read.
Rep. John Blust, a Greensboro Republican, also wrote on Facebook last week that he remains opposed to taking down Confederate statues.
“I cannot disagree any more than possible with modern liberalism which wishes to condemn anyone who did not hold present day views on race and equality,” Blust wrote.
But not all Republicans are ruling out removal of the statues.
Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Republican from Charlotte, said last week that Cooper’s call to repeal the statue law is “absolutely a conversation that we have to have.”
Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran