State Politics

How MLK got drawn into the Confederate monument debate in NC

The statue of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Gardens in Raleigh.
The statue of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Gardens in Raleigh.

If the state moves Confederate statues to a Civil War battlefield, Martin Luther King statues should be removed too, some members of the public told the state committee considering the fate of the monuments.

More than 3,700 people have submitted online comments to a group of NC Historical Commission members considering the request from Gov. Roy Cooper's administration to relocate three monuments from the Capitol grounds in Raleigh to Bentonville Battlefield in Johnston County.

Most of the comments are from North Carolinians, but people from at least 24 other states, including Connecticut, California and Kansas have shared their views.

Predictably, the comments are divided between those who want the statues to stay where they are and those who want them moved.

Among a sampling of comments reviewed by The News & Observer, at least 11 people who want the Confederate statues to stay in Raleigh equated moving them with moving or removing a statute of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. There is no King statue on the Capitol grounds, but there is one at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Gardens, a Raleigh city park.

"I just feel like they're trying to wipe out all white history," Roger Dale Williams of Graham said in an interview.

In a January comment to the state committee, Williams said references to King should be removed from public places if the Confederate statues are relocated. Others shared his sentiments. One commenter wrote that if the Confederate statues are moved, the King statue should be moved to the campus of one of Raleigh's historically black universities.

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That comment came from Mike Scoggins, a 69-year-old part-time machine tool salesman from Raleigh.

"The whole thing is a joke," he said Friday. "You should leave them all alone. If you mess with one, you should mess with them all.”

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Williams, 62, wrote: "If the Confederate statues are removed all the streets and statues named after Dr. Martin Luther King should have their names changed or removed."

"If the Confederate statues have to be removed because they offend some people, the King ones should be as well because they offend some of us."

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Williams said Thursday he saw similarities between King and Confederate soldiers. "They were both fighting for what they felt was needed to be fought for - their rights, Confederate states' rights, black rights. I'm not saying either was wrong. If one was wrong, so was the other."

James Leloudis, a history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, said equating King and Confederate statues ignores "fundamental moral distinctions."

"I think to a large degree it's an indication of just how much we in the public debate lost our moral compass," he said. "This historical reality is that those are two different kinds of statues. They speak to a very different understanding of the Republic and its core values."

The Confederacy was built on the rejection of the founding principle that "all men are created equal," Leloudis said, while "King, by comparison, called the nation back to its core defining democratic values. "

Leloudis referred to a speech by Confederate States of America vice president Alexander H. Stephens, called the "corner-stone" speech, in which Stephens said the nation's founders were "fundamentally wrong" about slavery eventually ending.

"Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition," Stephens said in the 1861 speech.

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Cooper proposed moving the three Confederate monuments following a violent white supremacists' rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year. His administration proposes moving the 1895 Confederate Monument, the Henry Lawson Wyatt Monument, dedicated in 1912, and the Women of the Confederacy Monument, dedicated in 1914. The petition says the monuments should be moved to the Civil War battlefield where they can be studied in context.

The legislature in 2015 passed a law that makes it difficult to remove or relocate public monuments. The state Historical Commission has a role, but one of the questions it is trying to answer is whether it has the authority to move the statues.

The committee is continuing to collect comments online. It is also meeting Monday to talk about setting up a meeting for public comment.

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Lynn Bonner: lbonner@newsobserver.com; @Lynn_Bonner

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