In early 2009, I called on Gov. Bev Perdue to tear down the Confederate memorial that towers before the State Capitol on Hillsborough Street.
Back then, the idea seemed so out there – as wild as the notion of two dudes getting hitched – that neither Perdue nor her Democratic colleagues who ran the government addressed my column. My ink-stained brethren also ignored my plea, as did, well, just about everyone else (excepting a few folks whose mouths needed a good soaping).
My follow-up column in 2012 produced the same reaction: zip, zilch, nada.
Suddenly, the monument’s fate seems perilous as symbols of the Lost Cause are falling across the South. This wondrous change is not a bolt from the blue. It is less an epiphany than a tipping point, a reflection of deep changes in the New South. But it has happened so quickly, right now, because for these past two weeks our politics of anger and division have been replaced by voices of amazing grace. Rising above our normal discourse, which disparages and demonizes and thereby slows change, are voices appealing to our better angels.
Almost all of the credit is due the family members of the nine African-Americans killed in Charleston who displayed rare courage and mercy in response to their unutterable grief. “I forgive you,” said Nadine Collier, whose mother, Ethel Lance, 70, was killed, to the racist shooter, Dylann Roof. “You took something very precious away from me. … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But if God forgives you, I forgive you.”
This generosity of spirit, this ability to rise above anger amid shattering pain, has become infectious. In response, a surprising number of Southern leaders have risen to acknowledge and repudiate the dark symbolism of the Confederate flags and monuments that have stood at the center of public life.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, an Indian-American whose state is also represented by a black Republican U.S. senator, Tim Scott, struck the perfect tone – empathetic yet resolute – in calling for the removal of the Confederate battle flag that stands before the State House building.
“For many people in our state, the flag stands for traditions that are noble – traditions of history, of heritage and of ancestry,” she said. But “for many others … the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past.” She continued: “We do not need to declare a winner and a loser here. We respect freedom of expression, and that for those who wish to show their respect for the flag on their private property, no one will stand in your way. … But the statehouse is different and the events of this past week call upon us to look at this in a different way.”
Just three weeks ago, the idea that white legislators from Alabama, Kentucky and Texas, as well as a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Strom Thurmond’s son (!), would echo Haley’s call was unthinkable. The strength and conviction of their words suggest that they are not the result of a “was blind but now I see” conversion. Instead, the profound example set by the families of the Charleston victims provided the impetus to express what was already in their hearts. It freed them from the lethargy and fear that so often prevent us from realizing our better selves and doing the right thing.
Here in North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory has called for the DMV to stop issuing license plates festooned with the Confederate battle flag. He must make that happen. He must also do much more, including call for the removal of our towering Confederate monument. If he doesn’t, we the people must demand it. We are in a moment. We must not let it pass.
Every argument for removing South Carolina’s Confederate battle flag applies to our monument. Indeed, neither symbol was raised to honor the past but to define the future. As South Carolina mounted the flag atop its Capitol in 1961 in opposition to the civil rights movement, we erected our monument in 1895 as a symbol of white supremacy. It was the first shot in a war on freedom that would use racist appeals and brutal violence to usher in the era of Jim Crow.
Removing or recasting the monument – perhaps in memory of all who have died for our country – will not vanquish racism. But it will be a powerful sign of the change that has already occurred and open our hearts to the work that lies ahead.
It will honor the voices from Charleston that have shown that the scorched earth, us-versus-them rhetoric that dominates our culture is not the best path to progress.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at email@example.com.