Civil Rights Group Turns to Courts for Help Taking Down North Carolina Confederate Statue.
A Confederate monument may be one step closer to coming down.
The statue of a secessionist soldier holding a rifle stands in front of the Alamance County Courthouse in Graham, the county seat. The memorial that’s often divided Alamance County is the subject of a lawsuit filed this week by the North Carolina branch of the NAACP.
The plaintiffs, which include the national NAACP and the Alamance County branch, are asking a judge to force the Alamance County Board of Commissioners to take down the statue, saying it poses a threat to public safety, violates the North Carolina Constitution, and glorifies slavery.
“That monument is not about heritage, it’s about white supremacy,” Barrett Brown, president of the Alamance NAACP, told Cardinal & Pine in an interview. “And it cannot stay in front of a place where all of us come to have justice symbolically meted out, at the county courthouse.”
The statue has been on courthouse grounds since 1914, a gift from the Daughters of the Confederacy. Similar statues were erected around that time across the South, when Jim Crow-era laws were being enshrined.
A newspaper account of the dedication ceremony quoted a Ku Klux Klan leader praising the monument.
“It’s been there for so long, it’s ingrained in the landscape. People got used to having these monuments all across the state,” Brown said. “You can hardly find a courthouse in North Carolina that doesn’t have a Confederate monument in front of it, facing north.”
Initial Push for Removal Ignored
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Whose Heritage?” report counted 94 Confederate monuments were renamed or removed from public spaces in 2020, in the wake of protests surrounding the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black citizens. In contrast, only 58 Confederate monuments were removed between 2015 and 2019.
North Carolina is second in the nation for removing Confederate symbols, led only by Virginia.
According to the Alamance NAACP, initial talks to remove the statue began more than six years ago, and were amicable. Discussions included options of relocating it to a Confederate cemetary or battleground. The NAACP fielded offers to have it removed for free. But, a law pushed through by the Republican legislature in 2015 prevented the removal, relocation, or altering of monuments, memorials, plaques and other markers on public property without permission from the North Carolina Historical Commission.
“That’s when they started playing hot potato,” Brown said, alleging that neither the city nor the county would claim jurisdiction, thereby muddying the petition process. “You couldn’t file paperwork or make a complaint. So we started to speak out publicly.”
Pro-Confederate factions often wielded the law to preserve monuments, such as Silent Sam at University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, but that strategy was weakened by an exception for “an object of remembrance for which a building inspector or similar official has determined poses a threat to public safety because of an unsafe or dangerous condition.” Silent Sam was ultimately torn down, and In November of 2019, Gov. Roy Cooper cited public safety in ordering the removal of three Confederate monuments from the state Capitol.
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As the movement for Black lives gained support following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, protests and rallies began to focus around the Alamance statue. In June 2020 the city of Graham released a statement that it would no longer issue permits to protest at the courthouse. The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of North Carolina, among others, filed suit against the city of Graham and Alamance County officials on behalf of the Alamance NAACP’s First Amendment rights. The next month, Brown was arrested for impeding traffic as he stood next to the monument holding a Black Lives Matter flag. The charges were later dropped. But clashes requiring police presence between the monument’s opponents and supporters mounted. Alamance County Manager Bryan Hagood wrote County Commissioners arguing that the monument posed a life-or-death threat to public safety and advising its removal.
Alamance County also made national news last year, when a march to the polls on the last day of early voting held by groups calling for racial justice was forcibly broken up by law enforcement who pepper-sprayed the interracial crowd. Led by the Rev. Greg Drumwright, the group had just finished kneeling in honor of Floyd’s life in front of the Confederate statute when Graham police and Alamance deputies began ordering the peaceful marchers to disperse and then used pepper-spray on a crowd that included children and elderly voters.
Other NAACP branches across North Carolina have pledged support for the lawsuit filed this week to remove the Confederate statue.
“Whatever resources they need, we’re there for them,” Corinne Mack, president of the Charlotte NAACP, told Cardinal & Pine in an interview. “In no country do you lose a war and then get taxpayer money to promote your cause. That flag is treasonous. Black people are saying no more, and we’re not going to be quiet about it.”