On a lonely North Carolina highway bordered by soybean fields and rusting tobacco sheds, the Sons of Confederate Veterans put up a billboard. “Save your family history!” it exclaims over a picture of the Confederate Battle Flag. In the real world, that blood soaked banner flew above an army of traitors. Of course, many families in eastern North Carolina are African-American and have a radically different stake in the enterprise of common memory. Whose history, exactly, is the motorist supposed to save?
In 2015, directly in the wake of a brutal and pitiless instance of race terror, the NC legislature passed a law to require approval by the state Historical Commission before public monuments could be removed. In the process, they placed onerous restrictions on when the Historical Commission could permit removal. Clearly trying to preempt the removal of Confederate monuments, they banned the transfer of these objects to museums and insisted that they be returned to their original place within sixty days of removal, which could only happen for maintenance or for narrowly defined public safety reasons. Republicans got their way in 2018 when Governor Roy Cooper tried, and failed, to move five Confederate monuments from the Capitol grounds to Bentonville Battlefield.
When Cooper announced that he wanted to remove the monuments, Republican Senate leader Phil Berger dropped any pretense that the monument bill was not about protecting Confederates. In an impassioned letter to the governor, he paid homage to “regular North Carolinians who died during the Civil War” (making no mention of the North Carolinians who fought for the Union) and the “sacrifices of North Carolina women during the Civil War” (for the Confederacy). Having previously described the bill as an effort to cool the passions of the moment, he now stood foursquare behind the pseudo-historical Lost Cause myth and those who would venerate it with monuments.
Because of the legislature’s devotion to the Confederate mythos, our state now has no realistic chance of removing Confederate monuments. To be clear, those objects send a public message that the Confederacy represented something in our history that is worthy of honor and respect. As British historian David Olusoga observed, “statues are about saying ‘that was a great man who did great things.'” That message is on display in 140 places throughout our state and cannot be legally revised. As even the Deep South begins to change its landscape of memory, North Carolina will be forced to publicly endorse a dishonorable cause until the Republicans’ monument law is repealed.
The shame of the Confederacy is inarguable; the purpose of monuments to it is to elevate that dishonor into an object of veneration. North Carolina’s monuments scarcely hide this reality. One memorial, in the town of Columbia, reads “In appreciation of our faithful slaves.” Another, in Sampson County, celebrates “a cause still just.” Louisburg’s monument originally had separate “White” and “Colored” water fountains. This is what our forbears invested the prestige of government in. The law that our legislature passed only five years ago to keep this message in place is a stain on North Carolina.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.