The top officials of the University of North Carolina system and UNC-Chapel Hill were given a clear authorization from Gov. Roy Cooper – they could remove the now-infamous “Silent Sam” statue in a prominent place on the old part of the campus if they feared its presence presented a hazard.
They did nothing. And the embarrassment over this monument to UNC students who fought for the Confederacy grew much worse as the text of a speech made by Julian Carr, a businessman and Civil War veteran, at the statue’s dedication made the rounds. The speech was about as bad as it could be, not so much the invoking of tired, overwrought phrases about Stonewall Jackson and the “boys in gray” but one segment in which Carr boasted of “horse whipping” a “negro wench” he said had insulted a white “lady.” The speech was appalling, and now many times the number of people who heard it at the dedication have read it and been disgusted by it.
Chancellor Carol Folt had a chance for a defining moment here, an opportunity to take a stand that would have restored her reputation and that of her university after a long-running academic-athletics scandal. But Folt, rather than order the statue taken down as a recognition of a new day and a new era in Chapel Hill after other leaders around the United States have ordered the removal of such monuments to the Confederacy, did not do anything except put some fences around the statue temporarily and urge people not to demonstrate.
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This ranks as one of the most disappointing moments in her tenure, and she cannot put a spin on it that makes her look like anything other than a weak leader who is perhaps bending to pressure from conservative Republicans on her Board of Trustees and those on the UNC system Board of Governors. Doubtless the sentiments on those boards isn’t as strong in favor of removing this statue and other Confederate monuments as it is in the general public and in particular in the university community.
Some individual faculty members have spoken out. But their chancellor, their leader, appears to be protecting her job above all.
How different this is from the progressive leadership of Chancellor Bill Aycock and UNC founding President William Friday, who stood against the Speaker Ban law of the early 1960s – a knee-jerk anti-communist bit of showboating by the General Assembly – despite the fact that their stance was unpopular with lawmakers and doubtless with some trustees. And what of the revered UNC President Frank Porter Graham, who never backed away from his enlightened views on civil rights even when he was viciously attacked while seeking election to the U.S. Senate in 1950? He lost, but not for lack of strength and personal fortitude.
Carol Folt still has time to restore her position of leadership by ordering the removal of Silent Sam – but not much time is left.