Historical Commission hears public comments on removing Confederate monuments

Nearly 60 people came to speak at Wednesday’s public hearing on removing three Confederate monuments from the Capitol Square in downtown Raleigh. Most of the speakers, who skewed older and white, said they were against moving the statues.

Boyd Sturges, attorney for the Sons of
Confederate Veterans, spoke against the removal of
the Confederate monuments.

Boyd Sturges, attorney for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, was spoke first – and set the tone of much of what followed.

“My client can give many sound philosophical, intellectual and historical reasons why you should not move these or any other historical statues,” Sturges said. “However,  they don’t have to do that here – because the law clearly protects these statues.”

Sturges was referring a 2015 law that makes it more difficult to remove such statues or “objects of remembrance” – passed in response to a growing movement to move or remove Confederate monuments. The law makes such requests the business of the North Carolina Historical Commission, whose special task force on the issue arranged Wednesday’s public hearing at the State Archives and History/State Library Building in downtown Raleigh.

“You don’t have to like a law to have to follow a law,” Sturges said. “Otherwise you have anarchy and mob rule. Anarchy and mob rule is not how North Carolinians conduct themselves.”

In his comments Rick New of Jacksonville represented a strain among the crowd who seemed to think the commission, by taking up the matter as they must under the law, was somehow violating state law.

“It looks like what you’re trying to do is circumventilate [sic] the law, ” New said. “The law is clear.  It says when you relocate a statue, it has to be in an equal place of prominence. There is no equal place in North Carolina other than the capitol grounds.”

At issue are three monuments on the capitol grounds, among about a dozen other statues. They are:

* The 75-foot Capitol Confederate Monument, erected in 1895, which commemorates North Carolina’s “Confederate dead.”

* The Henry Lawson Wyatt Monument, erected in 1912, which commemorates the first Confederate soldier killed in the Civil War combat at the Battle of Bethel on June 10, 1861.

* The Monument to North Carolina Women of the Confederacy, erected in 1914.

Joanne Clayton of Knightsville was one of a number of Black speakers who said they support relocating the monuments to the Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site, as suggested by Gov. Roy Cooper.

Clayton, like most mainstream North Carolina historians, observed the statues were not erected during the Civil War or even immediately thereafter, but years later when political campaigns of white supremacy led to their being put in places of government power. The monuments in question were dedicated – often

Joanne Clayton, who supports removing the
monuments, said their supporters don’t want to own
up to the white supremacist history of the Civil War
and the Jim Crow era that produced the statues.

with explicitly racist language praising the institution of slavery at their unveilings – between 30 and 75 years after the war.

“The timing when those statues were put in place was not the Civil War, it was during Jim Crow,” Clayton said, referring to a post-war period when laws were passed to disenfranchise Black citizens in the South despite their having gained their legal freedom. “Now the people who are supporting them are holding on to this fairy tale version of history. They don’t want to talk about what really happened.”

Several speakers Wednesday made reference to the “War of Norther Aggression” and praised Southern forces who “repelled invaders,” a number of them rejecting that the war had been over slavery or racism, despite that being made explicit in Confederate documents and in poltiical speeches of that time. Others railed against “criminal leftists” and “violent communists,” with one speaker even calling Gov. Cooper “The Neville Chamberlain of our time” in a reference to the British leader blamed for appeasing Adolf Hitler.

Dennis Johnson was one of a number of speakers who singled out Cooper.

“I’m a regular redneck from Johnson County and I think it’s wrong to move these monuments,” Johnson said. “It’s against the law. It’s stupid. The courthouse would be an eyesore without them. Our ancestors put them there for a reason, they need to stay there for a reason.”

“I can’t believe we got a governor that would even consider that,” Johnson said of moving the monuments.

“We’ll fight until Hell freezes over,” Gary Williamson
of Snowcamp said of his opposition to
removing the Confederate memorials.
“And then we’ll fight on ice.”

Gary Williamson of Snow Camp was even more forceful, saying that removing or relocating the monuments would be erasing the contributions of his Confederate ancestors – many of whom didn’t even get a proper burial.

“As a North Carolinian, a Tarheel, a Confederate descendant, those monuments mean everything to me,” Williamson said. “As far as I’m concerned, and I think I speak for a lot of folks here, if it does further the agenda of Gov. Cooper and we have to fight these battles, we will fight until Hell freezes over – and then we’ll fight on ice.”

Abraham Jones of Raleigh, another of the Black speakers who support removing the monuments, encouraged the commission and the crowd to consider what they really represent.

Had the Confederacy won the Civil War, Jones said, the U.S. would not exist as it does today and it is dangerous to romanticize the cause of the Confederacy.

“To continue this cause — we’ve gone on too long and it rips us apart,” Jones said. “It’s a shame.

According to David Ruffin, chairman of the Historical Commission, more than 4,200 comments on the controversy have been sent through a web portal established to take public comment on the issue. He encouraged the public to continue to provide its feedback as the task-force and ultimately the full commission continues its work.

The full commission will meet next month and is expected to hear a report from the Confederate monument task force.

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