The N.C. House voted 70-37 Monday night to make it harder to remove historical monuments and memorials – including controversial Confederate war memorials throughout the state.
The bill would ban 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.”
That would mean a state law would be needed to remove a monument or relocate one to a site that’s not of “similar prominence.” A final vote on the bill is set for Tuesday before it heads to Gov. Pat McCrory.
Rep. Michael Speciale, a New Bern Republican, said the bill creates a responsible process for handling historical monuments.
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“The whole purpose of the bill is to keep the flames of passion from overriding common sense,” he said. “We’re supposed to be the reasonable body up here that overcomes that and makes the right decisions.”
But several Democrats said the legislation comes at a bad time, weeks after South Carolina’s legislature voted to remove a Confederate flag from its statehouse in the wake of a deadly church shooting in Charleston, S.C.
Rep. Kelly Alexander, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, said his community is debating the removal of a monument that features four Confederate flags. He called for Mecklenburg leaders to have the ability to make that decision.
“Consider the optics of this bill as it relates to what’s going on right now,” Alexander said. “It’s the wrong piece of legislation, and it’s going to send the wrong message out there.”
The Republican majority defeated several amendments proposed by Democrats to restore local control over monuments on town, city and county property.
Rep. George Cleveland, a Jacksonville Republican, said the state should have the final say. “Municipalities and cities are subdivisions of the state, and the state can play with their property if they feel like it,” he said.
Legislators also disagreed on what monuments would be covered under the bill. Several supporters said the requirements would only apply to monuments owned by the state – not those owned or installed by a local government.
“We’re wrong to pass this bill without knowing what we’re passing,” said Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville Democrat. “I think only lawyers are going to enjoy this bill, because they’re going to get some employment out of it.”
Republican supporters of the bill stressed that it passed the Senate unanimously in April – long before the debate over Confederate symbols was sparked by the killing of nine people at a Charleston church.
There are about 120 Civil War memorials across the state, according to state records. About a dozen are dedicated to Union soldiers, and about 100 clearly are related to the Confederacy. The monuments are in cemeteries and on public and private properties.
The bill doesn’t specifically address the naming of buildings or roads. UNC trustees voted in May to rename Saunders Hall as Carolina Hall after students and others protested having a campus building named for the 19th-century Ku Klux Klan leader William Saunders.
As legislators discussed the bill, Alamance County commissioners were debating the fate of a specific monument Monday night: a towering, century-old Confederate memorial in front of the county courthouse in Graham.
A group called Concerned Citizens of Alamance County has petitioned to remove the monument, which it considers a symbol of slavery no different from the Confederate flag. But over the weekend, a crowd of more than 1,000 people held a rally to keep the memorial.
Cleveland said the Civil War-related monuments should remain in place. “A Civil War hero deserves the same consideration as a World War I hero or a World War II hero,” he said. “Folks would like to see the memorials to these people go away. I don’t think that’s the right thing to do for our history.”
But Rep. Elmer Floyd, a Fayetteville Democrat, said the measure will put restraints on how future generations handle history.
“When you do this, you are handicapping our future generations from having a dialogue on subjects of this importance,” he said.
Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698