Silencing Sam (updated to reflect UNC response)

Update: on Nov. 3, 2018 the UNC Board of Trustees took this action concerning the Silent Sam statue. Citing the state law mentioned in the post below, the board said its hands were tied concerning moving the statue to a museum or memorial park. In order to keep it on campus and relatively safe, the board will construct a $5 million building on campus to house it. Such a waste of money and resources at a time when higher education needs all the funding it can find. My feelings about the statue and its worthiness to be on a campus or a public building remain unchanged from what I wrote earlier this year.


The toppling of the Confederate statue known as Silent Sam on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Monday night was entirely predictable and equally avoidable. It happened because political extremism in our nation has left common sense to suffocate in the dirt — buried alive — fueling widespread hopelessness and rage.

I fear it won’t get better anytime soon, either.

Monday night students were joined by faculty and a variety of other protesters in taking down the more than century-old statue placed, according to scripted legend, in memory of a UNC student killed in the Civil War. But here’s the thing, we should all note what was actually said on the day the statue was dedicated. I saw this and other reflections and thoughts about the act this morning on social media. My longtime friend, author and journalist Eddie Huffman noted this piece of history that brings clarity to what the statue actually meant to those who put it there to start with. It should give any thinking person pause.

Eddie sam

Ahem, that statement in and of itself should close any debate about whether this statue is, was or even will ever be appropriate. It clearly was not and is not and never should be. It was generated from an obvious wellspring of hatred and racism — not a memorial to fallen soldiers at all. Instead it was a shrine to the worst of human behavior. It’s not appropriate for an institution of higher learning. It’s not appropriate for a center of government or a publicly owned park. It deserves the light of day only in terms of history and stored for viewing in such places where history is recorded and displayed so it can be viewed in the proper and accurate context.

Yes, I wanted the damned thing moved and I wanted it moved badly. But before I add my own “good riddance” to the chorus last night and today, I want to clearly state that it was also not appropriate for the protesters Monday night to forcibly take down a statue on public property. This is and was vandalism. This is and was intentional damage to public property. This is and was vigilante justice without discussion or due process. This is and was a criminal act. And as I noted earlier it was also sadly predictable.

Many today blamed the University of North Carolina for failing to either have the statue removed itself or for failing to adequately protect the statue from harm. I believe the university had little recourse in either area. This act of vandalism by the protesters was in response to a kind of political vandalism willfully committed by Republican members of the North Carolina Legislature. Something that has become a specialty following session upon session of bad laws approved after midnight and often during hastily called special sessions where debate has been quashed. It was their bill that forbids the removal of monuments from public properties — an overarching move to enforce its will onto what should be a community decision after open discussion. If the University of North Carolina feels it is the right move for it to remove symbols of hate from its campus, it should be a local decision, not one imposed by politicians seeking to gain favor with a specific base of supporters.

My friend and one-time newspaper colleague R.J. Beatty, a UNC alum, put it best.

RJ sam

I agree substantially here with R.J. But I worry about what might happen next as a result. While I can neither endorse or condone the vandalism, I do understand why the protesters, given no other recourse by law, made the decision. I would rather see them continue to fight for what is right through all legal measures instead of taking the law into their own hands. Another friend, Glenn Ayers, put it this way on social media. Glenn is an old-school Republican who once worked on Nixon’s presidential campaigns. He’s seen a lot in his time on earth. I agree only with his final sentence.

Ayers sam

Overall, I’m not a big supporter or fan of war monuments or statues of public figures  Last year when this issue came up for the upteenth time following the events in Charlottesville, Va. I wrote the following.

The Civil War is a tragic part of American history and the monuments telling the story or remembering those who died do have a place in the proper context. Museums or memorial parks serve as appropriate venues for such displays honoring war efforts and war dead, especially Civil War dead. They certainly do not belong at government centers. Centers of government aren’t really places for such memorials or monuments even if they’re not incredibly divisive. Government centers are places where all members of the public should feel welcome. No one should feel threatened. A symbol of our sad history of slavery should not be there.

Statues of military generals — or even statues of historic figures in general — should be placed in public sites only after serious thought. Too many times we learn after the fact that the people being honored aren’t worthy. In my view statues should really only be placed in the hometowns of the people being honored or some site where those persons made an incredible and positive mark on history or culture.

On the other hand, I also believe it’s wrong for people to go onto public property and take down these statues on their own. It’s vandalism and destruction of public property. There is a way for such actions to be discussed, debated and taken — or not. Those measures should be undertaken, not vandalism.

For an additional view by the ancestors of a Confederate veteran here’s a link to a letter written by the relatives of Gen. Stonewall Jackson.

And yes, I am the son of a son a son of a Confederate veteran. Read more about it here.

So good riddance to Silent Sam. It needed to go from its spot on the UNC campus and it’s my hope that it’s not restored to its former place. It should find a home in a museum or memorial park. That would be acceptable. I also believe the legislature should revisit this issue of monuments and author a proposal that would give communities the ability to make decisions for themselves without political overreach. As for whether those who brought the statue down should be charged, well, that’s in the hands of the Orange County district attorney. But laws were broken and sometimes that’s the penalty for civil disobedience no matter how necessary the protesters might think it is.

And I also want to salute the Chapel Hill police. By allowing the statue to come down, law enforcement avoided a potentially ugly display of force undertaken against teens and young adults on a college campus. Such a reaction could have led to large numbers of injuries or even fatalities and marred the University of North Carolina and the state for decades. In a time when our nation doesn’t seem to learn from its mistakes, thankfully the lesson of Kent State is not lost to time.


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