A coalition of religious leaders, activists and branches of the NAACP filed suit in Iredell County Tuesday, seeking to remove the Confederate monument in front of the historic county courthouse in Statesville.
The Iredell County Commissioners voted to remove the monument in March, but then reconsidered, prompting the lawsuit.
“A glorified symbol of White Supremacy stands guard over the Iredell County Government Center, a place where the government is supposed to serve all of Iredell County’s residents,” said Rev. Curtis Johnson, President of the South Iredell NAACP, in a statement on the suit Tuesday. “That is totally unacceptable, as the Commissioners recognized in their March Resolution. The Monument must go . . . peacefully, but it must go. The time is long overdue.”
Plaintiffs in the suit include the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, the NAACP’s Statesville and South Iredell Branches and the Iredell Clergy for Healing and Justice, an alliance of Iredell County religious leaders. The suit argues that the statue threatens public safety and is in violation of the North Carolina constitution.
Another of the plaintiffs is Rev Reverend Robert Wright Lee IV, a white resident of Statesville who is a descendant of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In a Tuesday statement Lee said the monument is a celebration of white supremacy and racism of which he is embarrassed.
[Update: On May 14, The Washington Post published an analysis piece questioning Robert Wright Lee IV’s claims that he is a descendant of Robert E. Lee. Policy Watch has reached out to Lee on the question but has not yet received a response. On Twitter, Lee said he has chosen not to engage on the issue because of medical issues and family dynamics. He has, however, removed his name from the lawsuit.]
“It’s always hard to bring people to Statesville and then have to take them to the restaurants downtown that are right in view of the statue,” Lee said in the statment. “Especially if they are people of color, especially if they’re familiar with the history.”
Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, President of the State Conference of the NAACP said removing these monuments across the state is a necessary part of fighting racism in our communities.
“These monuments are forces of intimidation and magnets for extremists,” Spearman said in a Tuesday statement. “Iredell County’s monument is a powder keg, and it must be removed so that the County can move forward united, prosperous, and peaceful.”
The nationwide movement to remove Confederate statues picked up momentum after the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, the former police officer recently convicted for the the crime. In North Carolina, activists had already been struggling for decades to have them legally removed from courthouses, parks and university campuses.
In 2017, protesters toppled a Confederate monument in front of the old Durham County Courthouse after their efforts to have the statue legally removed were stymied by the GOP-dominated legislature passing a law to protect such statues. A year later, protesters pulled down the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill.
Shortly thereafter, the State Historical Commission decided not to remove the three Confederate monuments on the Capitol grounds. The commissioners said at the time that they felt constrained by a 2015 monuments law to keep the statues in place.
In 2019, the City of Winston Salem succeeded in legally removing a Confederate monument from the site of a former courthouse downtown after years of legal struggles.
In June of last year, protesters tore down two bronze soldier statues from the 75-foot North Carolina Confederate monument at the State Capitol in downtown Raleigh, hanging one by its neck from a street light.
Gov. Roy Cooper ordered the remainder of the monument dismantled and removed for public safety, along with the Henry Lewis Wyatt and North Carolina Women of the Confederacy monuments, the two other Confederate statues on the Capitol grounds.
In November of last year, residents of Gaston County have filed a suit in state court to remove the towering “Confederate Heroes” monument in front of the county court house in Gastonia.
The Iredell County monument, like so many across the South, was financed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and erected in 1906. As Policy Watch has reported, the group helped pay for and erect such statues not in the direct aftermath of the Civil War but decades later in a wave of white supremacist sentiment that included a series of laws targeting and disenfranchising Black citizens.
Like many Confederate monuments, those who erected the Iredell statue were explicit in their racism and wish to preserve the system of slavery. During the dedication ceremony, Judge W.D. Turner said “the cause for which they [the South] fought was not lost.”
“This Monument in the heart of Statesville has continued to cause anguish in the lives of people of color and moral discomfort to many more, regardless of race and creed,” said Rev. Steve Shoemaker in a statement Tuesday for the group Iredell Clergy for Healing and Justice. “Our faith traditions compel us ‘to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God,’ and ‘to love our neighbor as ourselves.’ Such neighborly love leads us to our support of the relocation of the Confederate monument.”
One of the suit’s plaintiffs, Christopher A. “Skip” McCall, is a Black veteran who recalled returning from his service in the war in Vietnam to be faced with the statue still standing in his hometown.
“I almost broke down and cried,” McCall said in a statement Tuesday. “I had put my life on the line and had sacrificed to go fight for my country, and then when I come back home that statue is still there representing a concept, thought, and desire to keep my people in slavery.”
Read the full lawsuit here.