Carrying the torch: Today’s fight for justice is built on generations of struggle in NC

Horror and heroism often walk side-by-side. For every insurrectionist who attacked the U.S. Capitol last month, many more lifted their voices against racism and police violence in streets across our country. For every leader sowing false doubts about the 2020 results, droves of dedicated election workers tended to an honest vote. Amid every tweet downplaying the ravages of COVID-19, millions of American workers put their lives on the line every day to keep our society afloat.

The past year was hardly the first time the angels and demons of the human spirit have fought for the soul of our country. In this time of trial, it’s all the more vital to take strength from the examples of our forebearers, to remember we are the inheritors of a proud tradition of not taking injustice lying down, and that every right we enjoy emerged from intense struggle.

As we carry on the fight for justice, here are a few reminders of why it matters, and the heroes whose torch we have now in our hands.

The Hamlet Fire and a system of “cheap”

One of the worst workplace disasters in recent North Carolina memory happened in 1991, in the small town of Hamlet, when the Imperial Foods chicken processing plant went up in flames, killing 25 workers who were locked inside. Author Bryant Simon spent years trying to understand how the Hamlet fire happened, and what it reveals what he calls a “system of cheap” — a political and economic system that puts workers’ lives in peril, even in normal times, and becomes even the more deadly during times of crisis like COVID-19.

This conversation reflects on what we can learn from the Hamlet fire, how policy choices have shaped reality during COVID-19, and what we can do to truly value working peoples’ lives going forward.

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NC nonprofit launches a campaign to remove Confederate statues from courthouse grounds

A North Carolina criminal justice nonprofit announced a campaign to rid the state’s courthouse grounds of Confederate statues.

NC CRED, the North Carolina Commission on Racial & Ethnic Disparities in the Criminal Justice System, said that monuments to white supremacy should not stand outside courthouses.

“Their presence at courthouses undermines our country’s aspirational goal of guaranteeing equal justice under the law, something that cannot be realized as long as people of color have to walk past monuments to white supremacy to enter a courthouse,” James E. Williams, NC CRED chairman, said in a statement.

Confederate monuments in the state have been removed from public places at an increased pace since the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. in 2017.

Activists tore down some of them –  the statue outside the old Durham courthouse and Silent Sam at UNC-Chapel Hill, for example.

The pace of removals picked up after the death of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, at the hands of Minneapolis police last year.  WUNC tracked Confederate monument removals last year and found at least 24 had been removed or approved for removal since Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020.

It’s unclear how many Confederate monuments still stand in the state. NC CRED said 41 are on courthouse grounds.

As part of its public campaign, NC CRED plans to sponsor public events on the history of Confederate monuments in the state, help local communities and groups trying to remove them, and compile information on monument fundraising efforts, accounts of their dedication, and dedication speeches.

“For generations now, Black residents have been bitterly welcomed by these symbols that include monuments, murals, portraits, and other racist iconography,” Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, President of the North Carolina NAACP and NC CRED commission member said in a statement.  “Removing the monuments will not erase history. Instead, it will create history as we endeavor to right the wrongs of what they represent. We’re encouraged by the monuments that have been removed thus far, and hopeful that every single one of them will be removed.”

Law experts: Constitutional issues often misunderstood in gun, protest and militia debates

The Duke Center for Firearms Law held a virtual roundtable discussion Tuesday.

As guns become an increasing part of conflicts around elections, political protests and demonstrations, law experts say many Americans have a fundamental misunderstanding of the legal and constitutional issues around them.

The Duke Center for Firearms Law held an online roundtable discussion Tuesday exploring the issue in the wake of the 2020 election, the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and a rising tide of militant extremists that call themselves militias.

The forum, moderated by lecturing fellow Jacob Charles of the Duke University Law School, featured law professors Mary McCord of Georgetown University Law Center; Alan Chen of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law; and Timothy Zick of the William and Mary Law School.

The danger in a misunderstanding of established law with regard to guns was made startlingly clear last month, McCord said, when a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, killing a police officer and leading to scores of injuries. Despite Washington, D.C. not being an “open carry” state, photos and video footage make it clear that many of insurrectionists were armed with guns.

Such images have unfortunately become almost commonplace at political protests and ideological clashes all over the country — including in North Carolina, where armed neo-Confederates have in the last few years repeatedly clashed with those protesting Confederate monuments.

Even when blatantly flouting local and state gun laws, McCord said, many people will point to the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as granting them blanket protection to carry their guns. This is particularly true of people who are part of paramilitary groups that purport to be “militias,” McCord said.

But the constitution does not give private individuals free license to “organize themselves as militia units and call themselves forth, under their own command and control to engage in militia activity,” McCord said. The phrase “well regulated” militia in the Second Amendment has a historical context, McCord said. Even before the founding of the country, it was understood to mean regulated by the state. The founders had an antipathy toward the idea of a standing army and turned to individual militias. But those militias were then trained, funded and directed by the government. The authority to call forth militias lays with the Congress and with governors with regard to National Guard units and state militias.

“Our federalist structure has always wanted to have authority over any kind of military,” McCord said. Read more

Revised social studies standards remain a hot topic for State Board of Education

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson on Wednesday continued to rail against newly revised social studies standards, even as his State Board of Education colleagues searched for common ground.

The revisions have stirred controversy in recent weeks because of language Robinson said is “political in nature” and unfairly portrays America as “systematically racist.”

The state board discussed the standards Wednesday during its monthly meeting.  The board will vote on them Thursday.

Robinson said he has a petition signed by more than 27,000 people who don’t want the revisions approved. State board leaders acknowledged having received thousands of emails about the standards.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt rolled out a lengthy preamble to accompany the standards affirming that students must learn “hard truths of Native American oppression, anti-Catholicism, exploitation of child labor, and Jim Crow.”

Truitt wrote that students can also learn that the “US Constitution created the world’s first organized democracy since ancient Rome and that 90 years into our country’s history, President [Abraham] Lincoln ended the United States’ participation in what had been more than 9,000 years of legalized slavery and human bondage in most parts of the world.”

Last month, Truitt, a Republican, took issue with “explicit language” in Draft 4 revisions that addressed “systemic racism,” “systemic discrimination” and “gender identity.” Replacing them with racism, discrimination and identity would make the standards more inclusive, she said.

The board will consider the preamble as a companion to the standards when it votes Thursday, said SBE member Jill Camnitz, chair of the board’s Student Learning and Achievement Committee. The board will vote on Draft 5 revisions, which remove “systemic” from the references to racism and discrimination and “gender” from the reference to identity as Truitt requested.

SBE Chairman Eric Davis said he supports Draft 5 and the preamble.

“At the core of this preamble is the rejection of the notion that we must choose the good or the bad of our history,” Davis said. “Instead, it embraces the opportunity to choose the and, that we can teach the successes and the shortcomings of our shared past and that we can learn from both and celebrate both.”

Other Republicans on the board have been critical of the new standard’s tone. They say the revisions focus too much on America’s shortcomings while ignoring achievements and advancements.

Meanwhile, Draft 4 supporters said it’s important that students are taught multiple viewpoints about the nation’s history.

“We do believe in telling the whole truth of our country’s history and validating the identities of each and every child in our history that we teach, and that includes our LGBTQ students, our indigenous students, our Black students and other students of color,” said board advisor Matthew Bristow-Smith, a high school principal in Edgecombe County and the 2019 NC Principal of the Year.

Meanwhile, Robinson expanded his criticism of the standards to include the Black Lives Movement, which he said educators embrace despite BLM’s “inflammatory” remarks about police.

“In our public schools, we allow them [BLM] a voice,” Robinson said. “I’m the first Black lieutenant governor of North Carolina, and I was invited to speak at a school right here in this state, and there are administrators and teachers that don’t want my voice heard.”

Robinson said students are allowed to wear BLM gear to school but are kicked out for wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Blue Lives Matter” or “Make America Great Again,” which is former President Donald Trump’s signature campaign slogan.

“Let’s not talk about inclusion until we’re ready to include everybody’s voice,” Robinson said.

As the state’s first Black lieutenant governor, and as someone who rose above a poverty-stricken upbringing, Robinson said educators should be excited about him speaking to students.

“What is it that they are afraid of these children might hear from me that would damage them; that I was poor and overcame poverty; that I believe America is the greatest nation on Earth; that if they work hard, they can do anything?” Robinson said.

He also blasted WRAL for publishing an editorial cartoon Tuesday that depicts Republican state board members as members of the Ku Klux Klan. Their opposition to the revised standards led to the cartoon.

Click here to read WRAL’s statement about the cartoon.

“When you have a television station depict a Black man and a Native American woman [SBE member Olivia Oxendine] as Klansmen, these standards are divisive,” he said.

Oxendine also addressed the cartoon, which she called “disturbing.”

She worries the cartoon will negatively impact her work as a college professor.

“I’m going to have to face my students real soon and explain this political cartoon,” said Oxendine, who is a member of the Lumbee Tribe.

She said such cartoons silence diverse voices.

“What does that say about being able to voice one’s concerns?” Oxendine asked. “It says, shut up. It says be quiet. It says if not, you may find yourself in a political cartoon that’s disseminated and shared across the state. I’m going to have to explain that to my grandchildren.”

UNC Board of Governors members did not negotiate Silent Sam deal, according to documents

The Silent Sam Confederate monument, as it stood on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus before being toppled by protesters in 2018.

On Monday UNC-Chapel Hill’s independent student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, agreed to settle its lawsuit against the UNC System over the handling of the Silent Sam Confederate monument controversy.

The paper sued the system and the UNC Board of Governors over a negotiated settlement with the NC Sons of Confederate Veterans in which the system gave that group the statue and more than $2.5 million. The lawsuit argued that the board crafted the deal in secrecy and presented it to the public without holding any public meetings or discussions.

That deal provided the Sons of Confederate Veterans with the money to buy the rights to the statue from the United Daughters of the Confederacy; that agreement was later scrapped by an Orange County Superior Court judge, but not before the group spent a portion of the settlement money. It’s also questionable whether the UDC had the right to sell the statue.

“At The Daily Tar Heel, we feel very strongly that good government happens in the open” said Daily Tar Heel General Manager Erica Perel in an interview with the paper.  “That good decisions happen when they are vetted, when the public has the opportunity to comment on them.”

“And in this case, it became clear that there was very little discussion with the Board of Governors and people who worked there, that there was very little vetting,” Perel said.

Among the revelations made as part of the paper’s suit: the five UNC Board of Governors members who signed a News & Observer  editorial describing their negotiation of the deal did not actually participate in the negotiations or pen the editorial to which they lent their names.

UNC System Vice President for Communications Earl Whipple testified that he wrote the op-ed.

“It was my professional recommendation that individual names gives a public face to this,” Whipple said in testimony on the issue. “And since these five were, you know, tasked with working on this issue, my recommendation was we draft something that all five of them could sign onto.”

Attorney Hugh Stevens, who represented the paper in its lawsuit, told The Daily Tar Heel that Whipple crafted a false narrative in order make the settlement look better.

“In a clumsy attempt to shine a favorable light on two controversial agreements with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, he inveigled five members of the Board of Governors to lend their names and reputations to a fictitious narrative claiming that they had negotiated both,” Stevens told the paper.. “… Instead, Whipple merely invoked their names in his attempt to put a gloss on two questionable agreements cooked up by lawyers behind closed doors.”

Under the terms of the settlement, the UNC system will provide depositions on the negotiations and a written summary of how the agreement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans came about. It will also provide $74,999  to UNC-Chapel Hill as part of The Daily Tar Heel suit; those funds are to be used by the chancellor for racial equity initiatives on the school’s campus.

That amount mirrors a similar payment made to the Sons of Confederate Veterans in its settlement with the system. The figure is just $1 shy of the $75,000 limit at which Attorney General Josh Stein’s office would have to approve the settlement.