A couple of weeks ago I received a message via social media from a friend who lives in another county. He was curious about what’s going on in Graham, the county seat of Alamance County. At the time only 48 hours had passed following another tense Saturday of protests, counter-protests, shouting and arrests in a quiet town where that is hardly the norm, although it is becoming that way.
“The stuff in Graham is scary,” he wrote and then referenced images of the county sheriff and members of a neo-confederate group and added, “it looks a lot like Mississippi in the ‘60s.”
Yeah, that’s something to put on your Chamber of Commerce promotional materials.
But my friend isn’t wrong. Just a few days later I was contacted by the Opinion Page editor for the Winston-Salem Journal, someone I know only via Facebook and our mutual friends. He asked if I would be willing to write about the situation in Graham for his newspaper. I was and I did. Here’s the link.
Much of what I put together for the column for the Winston-Salem Journal I have written before in previous posts on my own site. But the controversy over the Confederate monument at the Historic Courthouse in downtown Graham is far from over unless elected leaders in the community show some actual leadership.
Over the past few weeks the situation involving peaceful protests under the banner of Black Lives Matter have occurred, the latest was today ((Saturday, July 25, 2020). Four people were confronted by sheriff’s deputies for simply standing beside the monument and holding signs. They were asked to move. When the people declined, they were charged with resisting an officer and obstructing traffic. Those arrested included a Burlington pastor, a member of the county Board of Elections, and the president of the Alamance County Branch of the NAACP. I know two of them personally and have found them to be intelligent, reasonable and interested only in improving our community. They were later released with a written promise to appear in court on Aug. 20. Photos below are by Elon professor Tony Crider.
The protest and arrests fall into the category of civil disobedience and what the now late John Lewis called “good trouble.” The arrests make a statement in and of itself. It is part of the action. About 70 people in all attended the NAACP rally in downtown Graham. I heard no word about any counter-protest by the neo-Confederate group, Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County (ACTBAC). When this organization and other sympathetic pro-Confederate groups are in the mix is when things get dangerous. This is what happened two weeks ago when my friend contacted me.
Ben Harris has been documenting actions, or a lack of actions, by elected leaders in Graham and the county for the past couple of weeks. He started a YouTube channel of video compiled from meetings, starting with one last Monday of the Alamance County Board of Commissioners. This video highlights the public comment portion of the meeting and how the commissioners responded. Mainly this week board members kept their comments to themselves upon the advice of legal counsel. This is because they are named in a lawsuit by the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union. In the background you can hear protesters outside the meeting chambers. They were there the entire session calling for the resignations of board members and Sheriff Terry Johnson.
Harris is monitoring via video conference meetings of the Graham City Council as well as the county commissioners. He is compiling on Facebook what occurs as the meetings unfold. Some of the actions are eye-opening for people who don’t regularly attend government meetings. Officials on both boards cited the ACLU lawsuit as a reason for not discussing the protests of the Confederate monument. Here’s the latest on the lawsuit, by the way, published in the Times-News this week. There are troubling accusations contained in the complaint, some I’ve heard before.
At the center of everything is the Confederate monument, inappropriately located in the hub of county government. It’s stands at what should be a symbol of justice for all — a courthouse. But the statue itself symbolizes a system built upon inequity and injustice for thousands of Black people for centuries.
The statue, dedicated on May 16, 1914 and given through the Daughters of the Confederacy, stands 30-feet tall. Inside the base is a time capsule containing relics of the Civil War period, including names of Civil War dead from Alamance County. Its supporters contend it symbolizes history, not hate. Its opponents contend that the heritage being memorialized is one of hate that has marginalized black Americans for decades and fuels racist actions both blatant and subtle. Those who want the statue moved also point out that it was established as a statement of white supremacy almost 50 years after the end of the war and in the Jim Crow era of strident racism in the South. Protests at the Graham monument started to occur regularly after the public murder of George Floyd on May 25 by a white Minneapolis police officer was seen on videotape by millions of people.
I have promoted moving the statue to a more suitable location multiple times over the past several years. Many agree. Even County Manager Brian Hagood recommended it be moved to the commissioners after a particularly tense Saturday confrontation in which an Elon professor was assaulted. The statue itself has become a rallying point for those for and against it. I fear there will be a tragedy there unless something changes.
Graham isn’t alone. Confederate monuments, nearly all erected in the early 1900s, are found in many Southern towns or institutions. Salisbury removed its 1900s era monument in early July calling it a public safety hazard. Raleigh allowed protesters to take down Confederate statues at the capitol in June. The University of Mississippi removed a statue from its campus this month. And Friday Virginia — the capital of the Confederacy — took down Civil War monuments and plaques on the state capital grounds to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and others.
So yes, these things can and should be moved. If Virginia can do it, government can.
There is evidence to indicate that Graham officials might have the authority to have the statue moved. The county commissioners also have that authority. There is written indication that the state Department of Transportation would be willing to help should a decision to move it be made. But so far none of the elected leaders seems anxious to make what would be the wise decision and move the statue to a museum, cemetery or memorial park and eliminate a controversial symbol, a public safety hazard and an unnecessary expense of money and time by law enforcement to protect it.
For now, the ball is in Graham’s court. There are no votes on the county board of commissioners to move it and I would classify many of the board members as indifferent to racism, which is by my definition racist.
The background hum of disturbing social media traffic I have mentioned before continues to play on a non-stop loop in our community. Some of the posts or public statements by Alamance County leaders expose racism’s deep roots and inform the community of how much work is ahead to be rid of it. It will take far more than simply removing the Confederate statue from its place at the epicenter of government.
But I still believe doing so would be a good start.