Silent Sam was a symbol of mob violence itself

After protesters toppled Silent Sam, the Confederate statue on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, politicians and pundits issued dire warnings about mob violence and the threat it poses to the rule of law. But history suggests that the issue is not that clear-cut. For more than a century, Silent Sam stood as a sentinel of white supremacy that lent dignity and respectability to systematic mob violence. This is the larger issue of law and order that is at stake in recent events. It has haunted our state and nation for generations, and as yet it remains unresolved.

In her speech at the statue’s dedication, Mary Lyde Hicks Williams, president of the North Carolina Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, spoke directly to its meaning. It was, she reported, one of 700 such “monuments to the Southern Cause” that the UDC had erected across the region. That choice of words was revealing. The statue honored alumni who fought for the Confederacy, and as the UDC explained in its constitution, “those survivors, who having faithfully served and suffered,” remained loyal to Confederate principles.

The students who left the university’s classrooms for the battlefield, and the audience that joined Mary Williams to memorialize them, understood the Southern Cause full well. Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, had explained it in his “corner-stone” speech, delivered on March 21, 1861 and widely published throughout the nation.

Stephens said of the Confederacy, “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. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

The North Carolina Daughters of the Confederacy left no room to doubt their allegiance to that principle. In 1905, they bought a Ku Klux Klan flag used in the postwar years of Reconstruction and sent it off for display in the North Carolina Room at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. They celebrated the purchase with a mock Ku Klux rally. Two decades later, the Daughters again memorialized the Klan, this time with a plaque attached to Tradition Rock, a landmark on the outskirts of Concord that had been an assembly point for hooded nightriders.

The “moral truth” of white supremacy, venerated by the UDC and other keepers of Confederate memory, was a lie that produced ruthless brutality. It inspired the acts of terror that were the Klan’s answer to black emancipation; it gave legitimacy to murderous white supremacy campaigns, including the Wilmington riot and coup in 1898; and from the 1880s through the 1960s, it aroused the anger of white vigilantes who, in acts of true mob violence, lynched thousands of black men and women.

In every instance, the perpetrators justified their crimes in the name of law and order. We should be wary of thinking only in those terms as we confront the troubles of our own time. We would do better to reckon honestly with the dark legacies of the past. That is the path to reconciliation and the means of ending the racial divisiveness that for too long has brought too much pain to too many North Carolinians.

James Leloudis is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.