A Confederate flag flew over the capitol in South Carolina, and then on a nearby pole, for more than 50 years. Then in 2015 the S.C. legislature removed that flag from its capitol grounds. A few weeks later, then-N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill banning state agencies and local governments from removing historical monuments across North Carolina.
The action in South Carolina, coming after the shooting of nine members of an African-American church in Charleston, was long overdue and the right thing to do.
In contrast, the monument law in North Carolina was precisely the wrong thing to do — an ill-timed, ill-considered, tone-deaf measure that has led directly to the acrimonious protests, angry debate and an unresolved stalemate surrounding the Silent Sam Confederate monument on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. A solutions-oriented legislature would recognize its mistake, return to special session and repeal the law.
Across North Carolina, there are about 100 monuments to the Confederacy. Most of them were erected by local governments. For example, in 1914 the Alamance County commissioners contributed $1,000 to install a 30-foot high statue — a marble Confederate soldier on a granite column — on the north side of their courthouse.
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Because of the 2015 law, the Alamance commissioners couldn’t remove or move that statue if they wanted. That might work in Alamance; that community might believe the presence of that monument is appropriate.
But the UNC-Chapel Hill community is opposed to Silent Sam’s presence at the main entrance to the university. By approving a rigid, top-down measure, the legislature and McCrory made inevitable the protests and discord that have followed.
The treatment of historical monuments is a complex issue. The monuments can symbolize different qualities to different people. Those beliefs can be strongly held.
Legislators three years ago thought they were best equipped to decide the matter. They thought they should mandate a one-size-fits-all solution. “Municipalities and cities are subdivisions of the state, and the state can play with their property if they feel like it,” said Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow. That sums up the winning argument nicely, and the measure was passed in the House by a vote along party lines. (The Senate approved the bill unanimously before the Charleston shooting re-framed the debate.)
But what if the legislature took a different approach? In his book “Team of Teams,” retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who led allied efforts in Iraq against al-Qaeda, said complicated problems require a different approach. That might mean going against the grain of tradition and avoiding the tendency to micromanage.
“Effective adaptation to emerging threats and opportunities requires the discip
lined practice of empowered execution,” McChrystal wrote. “Individuals and teams closest to the problem...offer the best ability to decide and act decisively.”
Some issues demand a statewide standard. Preserving Confederate monuments isn’t one of them. The legislature’s mandate shut off any possibility of communities seeking creative solutions. While UNC-Chapel Hill has rejected Silent Sam, another N.C. community might embrace its Confederate monuments and develop a tourist-driven strategy that adds historical markers, moves monuments and creates a walking trail of history.
By mandating a statewide solution, legislators fueled discord instead of preempting it. Now we have a painful problem in Chapel Hill in which the chancellor of the university, reflecting the will of that community, doesn’t want Silent Sam returned to his pedestal, as some say the law requires. There’s a clear path to a solution, and that’s for the legislature to restore the authority over the monuments to the communities that erected them.