Men and women waving Confederate flags clashed up close with college students Sunday afternoon, as both sides gathered near the monument to Confederate soldiers on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus.
Groups from Alamance and Orange counties organized the pro-monument rally, which turned into as much a defense of the Confederate flag as a statement about the statue. The monument supporters rolled a caravan up the central thoroughfare of Franklin Street with Confederate flags flying from their vehicles, then waved them through the afternoon.
The Alamance and Orange groups were met by chanting counter-protesters – some students and others taking their side from outside the school.
Eventually the two factions were established on the opposite side of the Silent Sam statue, which was surrounded by a double-layer of fencing.
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“Hey, hey. Ho, ho. This racist statue’s got to go!” the counter-protesters chanted. “Silent Sam, go to hell.”
In response, the pro-monument group sang “Dixie.”
About 250 people attended the rally and counter-protest, UNC-Chapel Hill spokesman Jim Gregory said. The counter-protesters outnumbered monument supporters.
Silent Sam has been targeted by protesters and vandals several times this year. It has been blind-folded and spray-painted with tags including “murderer,” and “black lives matter.”
The statue of a Confederate solider was erected in 1913 as a memorial to UNC alumni who died in the Civil War and all students who joined the Confederate Army. It has been a flashpoint for years and several individuals and groups have recently proposing moving it from its prominent spot on campus.
The legislature this year made it harder to remove statues and memorials from public property. The bill protecting monuments was filed before South Carolina voted to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds there in response to killing of nine churchgoers in Charleston.
But North Carolina legislators who opposed the law said it was the wrong time to pass it.
Despite the added legal protection, monument-backers said it was important to demonstrate support.
“If we don’t show we’re here to support it, they don’t see that side of things,” said William Allen, a Chapel Hill resident. “It’s not meant to be racist. It’s simply part of who we are.”
Counter-protesters said they were not surprised that the statute is drawing vocal support.
“If there is one thing that racists love, it is to be heard, even if they are wrong,” said Leah Osae, a first-year pharmacy school student from Cary. “They love to be loud when they are losing a fight.”
Though the two sides were meant to be separated, a few counter-protesters holding large signs that said “Against White Supremacy” and “Carolina Anti-Racists” came to stand at the edge of the Confederate flag-wavers.
A few tense confrontations resulted, and police moved close as arguments became more heated. One man who did not give his name repeatedly taunted and booed the Silent Sam supporters.
But a few tried to talk.
Michelle Laws, executive director of the state NAACP, shook hands with Mark Self of Alamance, a monument supporter. She said controversies such as that over the statue were a distraction from issues that could bring together poor blacks and whites together.
“That’s been the best form of trickery in American history, is to keep poor blacks, poor whites, fighting, battling along racist lines,” she said. “Those scoundrels serving in Congress, they don’t have your best interests in mind, they don’t have my best interests in mind, but they love these kinds of distractions.”
Laws could not convince Self that the Confederate flag was divisive.
“Just because you see someone with a Confederate flag doesn’t mean they’re racist,” he said.
“It’s disrespectful to those students to tear it down and move it,” Self said of the UNC students who served the Confederacy.