Yesterday, the Republicans leaders of the legislature told the State Historical Commission to deny Governor Roy Cooper’s request to move Confederate monuments from the grounds of the state Capitol to the Bentonville Battlefield. Their request makes two things clear: The law they passed was meant to protect the monuments, not establish an orderly process for removal like the GOP claimed, and, second, they want to make this fight about race to drive out their base.
Senator Phil Berger called Cooper’s request political theater, but it’s Berger who using the stage to advance his cause. He could have let the Historical Commission debate the matter and issue an opinion. Instead, he let the press and his base know that he’s standing up for the statues because he wants the argument to play out in the 2018 elections.
Midterm elections usually hurt the party in the White House and Republicans need something to drive their base to the polls. The fight over hundred-year-old monuments is just what they’re looking for. Native rural white Southerners who make up a large portion of the GOP base want the statues to stay. Younger people, especially African-Americans, want them gone. It’s a wedge issue and dog whistle that would make Jesse Helms proud.
When the law originally passed, Republicans claimed that it was put in place to insure decisions weren’t made based on “flames of passions.” Berger’s letter exposes the lie of that rationale. He could have allowed the Historical Commission to deliberate and make a decision. Instead, he inserted himself into the debate to further politicize an emotional issue. His argument defends all of the statues, not just those on the Capitol grounds.
More than 700 statues in 31 states memorialize the Confederacy. Most were put up in the early days of Jim Crow at a time when white Southerners were disenfranchising African-Americans and glorifying the Ku Klux Klan. Putting them on government property, especially in front of courthouses, sent a clear message to African-Americans.
Berger claims he wants to prevent the state from trying to “rewrite history” but that’s exactly what the current monuments were intended to do–and did so successfully for almost a century. If Berger’s sincere, he should also urge the current monuments be put into historical context and recognize that they were originally erected at a time when any opposition to them was being suppressed through violence and intimidation.
But Berger’s not going to do that. He’s letting his base know that he’s with them and hoping for a fight that inflames passions. And like gerrymandering and his voter suppression law, he’s letting African-Americans know that their opinions and history really don’t matter much.
Berger and the Republican leadership’s sense of history is really quite good. They understand that race is still a potent and driving force in Southern politics. Today, they’re cynically exploiting it for political gain and betting dividing North Carolina is better than uniting it.