The past 10-plus days in Alamance County have produced the greatest amount of sadness, frustration, agitation, outright anger, half-truths, gaffes, misstatements, fabrications, miscalculations, social action, political action, protests, vigils, walks, marches, racism and antiracism that I can remember over such a short period of time in this community — a place I’ve lived for 21 years in all.
And it’s far from over.
Sadly, the center of it all is Graham, the county seat, hub of government and home of the judicial system locally. It’s a beautiful small town that is almost Mayberryesque. It’s also the home of a Confederate monument — a soldier atop a tall pedestal — situated at an inappropriate site, the county’s Historic Courthouse. The statue is a symbol for many of America’s greatest injustice — the Confederacy and its dedication to enslaving thousands of black people for centuries as well as the racism that continues today.
The statue has become a lightning rod drawing Black Lives Matter protesters who want it removed and counter-protesters who cite its history and odd dedication to some form of heritage that really defies logical description. And some just show up to be protesting something, they don’t much care what. The explosion of protests across the nation after the public murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has drawn people to Graham almost daily over the past two weeks. There has been pushing, shoving, shouting and displays of sidearms by some in attendance. States of emergency have been declared and curfews set. On June 20, County Manager Bryan Hagood made a common sense and responsible recommendation to the county Board of Commissioners to move the statue to a secure place until a new home could be found for it. On June 22, I wrote about this in a post headlined “Commissioners have the opportunity to do the right thing, finally.”
Then commissioners, predictably, gave every indication that they would likely do the wrong thing. Two board members contacted by the Burlington Times-News — Tim Sutton and Eddie Boswell — said they are against moving the statue. Boswell’s stance made the issue a done deal. Commissioner Bill Lashley is intractable on this issue as he is many others. The votes simply aren’t there.
Things got a little more out of control from that point. Put it this way, I’ve seen change.org petitions asking for the resignation of Lashley and Sheriff Terry Johnson as a result of things said and done due to this issue. Don’t wait around for either of those things to happen. If Lashley hasn’t resigned after multiple incidents over past several years don’t expect it now when he’s six months from leaving office.
So people on all sides also sectioned themselves off into private social media groups. The neo-confederate group Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County (known as ACTBAC) issued a meandering and puzzling statement in support of the monument but incorrectly stated that it speaks for a “vast majority” of Alamance County residents. It speaks for a lot of them, I know but “vast majority” is overstating the case. It also identified the Black Lives Matter protesters as Antifa members well paid from an organized source outside our community. That’s hardly true and only props up the latest bogeyman used to counter and discredit legitimate protesters.
Also predictably, public social media posts, primarily on Facebook, were revealing and disturbing by a lot of folks, some in leadership positions.
There was a story, for example, about a social media post by Deputy Register of Deeds Cheryl Marley, which blew up on Facebook and wound up in a story by the Times-News. In her post Marley stated, “What is privilege … Let me tell you what it is. Privilege is wearing $200 sneakers when you’ve never had a job. Privilege is wearing $300 Beats headphones while living on public assistance.” The post, which she later removed, is in reference to the stated idea of “white privilege” as viewed by black Americans. According to the story by reporter and longtime friend Isaac Groves, “The post goes on to mention free smartphone data plans, subsidized housing, being able to protest without worrying about missing work, having ‘as many children as you want’ in ‘daycare or school you don’t pay for,’ and ends with, ‘I’d rather you say thank you and went on your way.'”
Marley referred questions to Register of Deeds Hugh Webster, who is no stranger to making horrifying comments. He once referred to state judges as “retarded.” He clearly doesn’t fully understand the concept of white privilege, which isn’t access to public assistance. It’s access to a normal life, activities and services like consistent health care. The biggest example? White Americans walk freely most anywhere they go without being asked why they are there. No one calls the police about white people without cause and they are seldom stopped by an officer for no reason. Black Americans face this prejudice on a regular basis and fear being beaten or worse.
Webster also called charges of racism “playing the race card.” He told Groves that in itself is racist. He’s wrong. Playing the so-called “race card” in this case is people being antiracist.
Late last week the sheriff, a recent expert on what’s constitutional, decided that protests would not be permitted in downtown Graham anymore, counter to the First Amendment rights of Alamance County residents. This is the same sheriff who decided to protect the constitutional rights of Ace Speedway owners to put several thousand people in their grandstands during a global pandemic and against an order by the governor of North Carolina.
But perhaps most disappointing was a social media mistake by Graham Police Chief Jeff Prichard. He commented on a Facebook post and meant to share it on his personal Facebook page but placed it on the Graham Police Department page by mistake. The chief issued an apology but if this expresses his true feelings his work in law enforcement needs closer scrutiny. I always liked the chief so I hope this is just a bad misunderstanding
After a weekend of more turmoil, tension and taunting in downtown Graham — something business owners there have to be very tired of — there was a positive development, at least for those who want to see the monument moved away from a government site and to a museum or cemetery. A group of civic, education, political, health and business leaders joined together for a press conference at Alamance Foods in Graham and issued a letter with more than 50 signatures by an impressive group of people connected to the community’s leading institutions, includingElon University president Connie Book.
This is the text of the letter.
We as leaders in Alamance County recognize that we have a role to take the necessary and timely action needed to ensure that our county is an inclusive, equitable and welcoming place for people to thrive, conduct business, pursue an education, and live fulfilling lives.
The Confederate Monument in the Courthouse Square of Graham currently stands at the symbolic heart of our county at the epicenter of government. While this artifact is undeniably part of our history, for many in our community, it represents an ideology incompatible with equality. The history of Confederate monuments in the United States is complex. While many believe they exist simply to honor fallen soldiers, in actuality they were erected at a time of fervent white supremacy. The monument’s prominent location before a house of justice, an entity which has historically failed to serve our communities of color with equality, perpetuates this symbol as a barrier to the inclusion we aspire to achieve. As the municipalities and counties around us have taken action to remove their monuments, the Alamance County monument draws ever increasing notoriety and represents an increased potential for violence. Now is the time for decisive action to relocate this monument.
We are at a crossroads. As leaders, we want the county to move forward to a bright, prosperous future and not cling to a symbol that will inevitably hold us back. The county manager has wisely warned of the risks of deadly violence and recommended that the monument be relocated. We wholeheartedly agree and support urgent action.
The future of our community hangs in the balance. Bold and inclusive leadership is needed now more than ever. We stand together in this request and we invite other leaders to join us in this call to action.
We hereby call upon the Alamance County Commissioners and the City Council of Graham to take action to relocate the monument in a respectful and appropriate manner. Relocation of the monument will remove the threat to the public safety that has been created by this symbol in the Courthouse Square of Graham.
Ian Baltutis, Mayor, City of Burlington
Ed Hooks, Mayor, City of Mebane
Lenny Williams, Mayor, Town of Gibsonville
Carissa Graves-Henry, Mayor, Town of Green Level
Connie Book, President, Elon University
Leo Lambert, President Emeritus, Elon University
Patsy Simpson, School Board Member, Alamance Burlington School System
Steve Van Pelt, School Board Member, Alamance Burlington School System
Brian Feeley, School Board Member, Alamance Burlington School System
Wayne Beam, School Board Member, Alamance Burlington School System
Quinn Ray, Alderman, Town of Elon
Emily Sharpe, Alderman, Town of Elon
Doug Williams, CEO, Buckner Companies
Bill Scott Jr., President, Alamance Foods, Inc
LeAndra N. Ratliff, Chair-Elect, Alamance Chamber of Commerce
Jill Auditori, Mayor Pro-Tem, City of Mebane
Sean C. Ewing, Councilmember, City of Mebane
Patty Philipps, Councilmember, City of Mebane
President Barrett Brown, Alamance NAACP
Jim Bryan, President, Fairystone Fabrics
Griffin McClure, Green & McClure Furniture
Jason Cox, The Monroe Companies
Lee Kimrey, Lee Kimrey Construction, LLC
Mayor Pro-Tem Kathy Hykes, City of Burlington
Rev. Anita Thompson, Presiding Elder, Western NC Conference – AME Church
Rev. Tamara Kersey-Brown, Wayman Chapel AME, & Secretary, Alamance Pride
Rev. Gwendolyn Benjamin, Sr. Pastor, Wayman Chapel AME
Rev. Jay Kennett
Rev. Beth Kennett
Ken Smith, President, Alamance Pride
Laurin Kier, Incoming treasurer, Alamance Pride
Gabrielle Legrand, At-large board member, Alamance Pride
Yun Boylston, MD
Lisa Pennington, Past Chair, Alamance Chamber of Commerce
Rev. Dr. Bridgette Gloster, Senior Pastor, Springdale AME, Burlington
Rev. Dr. Clay Gloster Jr. Associate Pastor, Springdale AME Burlington
Pastor A. Offord Carmichael, Jr. – Clover Garden, Burlington NC
Mac Williams, President, Alamance Chamber of Commerce
David K Mertz, MD
David Carter, Allen Tate Realtors
Allison Gant, Chair, Alamance Burlington School System
Tony Rose, School Board Member, Alamance Burlington School System
Kristen Page, MD
Megan Ray, outgoing treasurer, Alamance Pride
Rodney Wyatt-Younger, at-large board member, Alamance Pride
Eric Henry, President, TS Designs
Bob Byrd, Former Commissioner, Alamance County Commission
Catherine Smith, President, Martin Luther King Jr. Coalition of Alamance
For questions or to have your name added to the list of supporters on this letter, please contact the office of Mayor Ian Baltutis at 336-222-5020.
I contacted Baltutis and asked to be added to this letter. It’s an important community statement that shows at least some leaders are listening and care about improving our area and that black lives matter. It is unlikely to get much traction,. though. This is how the county responded on its website. Commissioner chair Amy Galey also echoed this statement to the Burlington Times-News.
County attorney Clyde Albright has advised the Alamance County Board of Commissioners that, pursuant to state and federal law, Alamance County does not have the legal authority to move the Confederate Veterans Memorial at courthouse square. The monument in Graham is an object of remembrance as defined by North Carolina General Statute 100-2.1, which gives it different legal status than a statue of an individual person or a commemoration of a battle or event. The county manager neglected to obtain information about the legality of his opinion before he offered it.
The drafting and announcement of this open letter is troubling. Very few of the people who participated in this statement (four of the fifty-six) have contacted any one of the five commissioners in the past few months to discuss their concerns about the monument. We have learned that at least some of those whose support for this letter was sought were told, “Don’t tell the commissioners” about the effort to draft it. Mayor Baltutis waited until 9:40 am on Monday, twenty minutes before his press conference was to begin, to inform Chair Galey, which prevented her from being able to attend.
One may ask, why would the authors of this letter not want the commissioners to know that it was being drafted and circulated? Why was it done in secret and then unveiled at a press conference? This would lead an observer to believe that this “call to action” is political in nature. Its true purpose would not appear to be to persuade the commissioners, but to ambush them in as public a manner as possible.
We do not doubt that those who signed the letter are sincere in their beliefs and hope to see the county find a resolution to this difficult challenge. The best way to seek a resolution is not by operating in secret, drawing up in opposing lines, and engaging with the press. Alamance County deserves leaders who are willing to reach out and communicate with one another.
I believe Albright is missing the point. The group wanted to make a statement to the commissioners, the county and the community at-large. It’s a message. I also doubt reaching out to the board would do much good. Three of them aren’t running for re-election and likely have little interest in engaging in a long-term discussion about an issue they have no interest in addressing, especially when time is a factor.
For the sake of the community, we have to find a way to address this situation. I believe there has to be a way to deal with it and still protect the historical record. People are exhausted by the conflict, the pain and the lack of attention. Graham can’t live under a nonstop curfew and the cost to protect the Confederate monument is growing at a time when budgets are tight. The monument is a public safety hazard and has become a nuisance.
Thanks again to some leaders in the community for saying so.