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D.G. Martin: Farewell, ‘Silent Sam’

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D.G. Martin

He is like the houseguest who stays too long, and then when he’s finally gone, you miss him a little bit.

I am talking about Silent Sam, the Confederate memorial statue whose 100-plus-year presence on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill ended last week.

On the Monday night before the opening day of classes, a large crowd gathered to continue the ongoing protest of the statue’s prominent presence on the campus. Police were there to keep order and, as they have done for months, protect the statue from damage. But before the evening was over Silent Sam had been pulled to the ground and campus officials had removed his remains to an undisclosed location.

For the protesters and many students and faculty, the statue represented the glorification of the slave-based society that Confederate soldiers fought to defend and the white supremacy culture that prevailed when the statue was erected in 1913.

Others throughout the state argued that the memorial to the fallen soldiers was simply that, a respectful tribute and reminder of the glory and the horror of brave people who gave their lives in wartime conflict.

Writing for the Raleigh News & Observer on the day after Silent Sam came down, retired editor and Pulitzer Prize winner, Ed Yoder, explained his attachment to the memory of his great grandfather, who died in battle in 1864, “has little to do with racial pride [or] … accord with the Confederate cause as it would have been understood … For a remote descendant the satisfaction … lies in a sense of rootedness … a continuity with the history of a nation so largely shaped by conflict.”

For Yoder, Silent Sam was “a remembrance of duty and self-sacrifice that I have known as an unoffending visual companion since boyhood. Perhaps that is why its mob destruction is like the severing of a limb. And it hurts.”

On the other hand, in a column for WRAL, UNC-Chapel Hill and Yale Law School graduate Michael-Bryant Hicks, wrote, “African-American students at UNC, which refused to admit black undergraduates until a federal court intervened in 1955, should not be greeted at the campus doorsteps by a prominent symbol glorifying the cause of white supremacy. While some people want to brush off the power of the statue’s symbolism, our nation’s ugly history on race doesn’t provide such a luxury.”

The statue has been for many students and faculty a part of a hostile campus atmosphere and who believed it should have been removed long ago. University officials, however, declined to act, asserting that state law prohibited the removal or relocation of the monument.

Ironically, a few days before Silent Sam came down, Hampton Dellinger, an attorney for the Black Law Students Association, a faculty member, and several other students wrote to UNC officials demanding Silent Sam’s removal, threatening a lawsuit, and asserting that the memorial fostered a racially hostile environment, which would be a violation of federal civil rights laws.

Dellinger contended, “Because of UNC’s overriding obligation to comply with federal anti-discrimination laws. UNC is not only free to remove Silent Sam in order to adhere to federal law, it is legally obligated to do so.”

No doubt Dellinger will use these arguments in the coming debate about whether to reinstall the monument.

I admit that I miss him. He was part of the familiar and comfortable campus landscape. Like Ed Yoder, I do not believe that my affection for and pride in Southern culture is racist.

But the better part of Southern culture is concern for the comfort and well-being of our neighbors. If Silent Sam projected racism to them, it is better that he does not come back.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs on UNC-TV.

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