Josh Bergeron: How are statue’s ‘municipal fireworks’ different in 2019?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 23, 2019

It was an old story for “Fame,” a Confederate monument depicting a winged figure holding a wounded soldier, stated a 1959 story in the Salisbury Post.

A debate was brewing about removal in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She had weathered a similar movement for its removal back in 1948, wrote Salisbury Post staff writer James S. Brawley.

In 1959, the debate was over traffic flow. Police officer Lt. R.C. Kirchin told the Salisbury City Council that removal of the monument would speed traffic flow.

“We would keep a median strip,” he said in a 1959 Post story, “but removal of the monument would enable two lines of west-bound traffic on Innes instead of one.”

Traffic had doubled since 1940, he said.

“Our latest count indicates there are 1,000 cars moving on West Innes each hour,” Kirchin said in the 1959 story.

Now, with more people living in Salisbury and Rowan County, there are more cars, too. N.C. DOT’s 2017 traffic count, the latest available, indicated there were 19,000 vehicles driving past the spot on an average day. A stone’s throw away, on East Innes the traffic count was 22,000 in 2016.

All can easily guess how the mid-century conversation turned out. The monument still stands. And the Innes Street is now two lanes in each direction.

Apparently at some time during that debate, Rowan County commissioners suggested the intersection of West Innes Street and Old West Innes Street, adjacent to what was a county office building, as a potential site. Called the War Memorial Building, a letter from the Rowan Veterans Council to then-Mayor Linwood Foil urged the City Council to consider the site.

The 1948 debate about the relocation of “Fame” had also been over traffic safety. And not only had relocation been considered, but removal of the grassy median was a topic of discussion, too. Glenn Ketner, chief spokesman for business interests who wanted the grassy plots moved, said at the time that he had conducted a survey among nearby residents, and they favored removal of the grassy plots by a three-to-one count.

There were “municipal fireworks” expected at a forthcoming hearing on the topic, the Post reported.

If Salisbury in 1948 thought traffic safety brought forth a contentious conversation, I wonder what locals then would think about the debate our city is having today.

Last week’s meeting more clearly outlined opinions and legal considerations in a debate that’s primarily focused on relocation. One argument was public safety — that those who want to view the monument must cross into the middle of the street and that there have been recent incidents of vandalism.

Another was the ties between the Confederacy and slavery necessitate its removal and relocation. But that, too, has been part of arguments for removal before. In 1996, the Post reported that Salisbury attorney Michael King raised questions about the monument and his quote sounds a lot like the arguments we hear today.

“People who have brought it to my attention are not trying to prevent anyone from honoring their forefathers, “King told the Post’s Mark Wineka in an interview. “But it’s unfair to make everyone honor something that was against their interest … That statue has always been pointed to by people in my community as racism in the white community.”

King would hold a rally in front of the monument, too.

Many Salisburians also will remember debates in 2015 that sprung forth after the murder of nine black worshippers at their church in Charleston, South Carolina.

But the fact that we’ve had these debates before does not presuppose that they are identical.

We’re a much more polarized society than we were in the 1990s, the 1950s or the 1940s. Republicans and Democrats are more deeply divided along party lines. There are fewer Democrats who consider themselves consistently conservative and fewer Republicans who consider themselves consistently liberal. There is less overlap of views in the middle, too. And the divide is even more stark among those who consider themselves politically engaged, according to survey data from the Pew Research Institute.

Moving a monument, to some, may not seem like an inherently political topic, but those engaged in the debate have firmly entrenched opinions. The president has spoken on the topic, expressing support for Confederate monuments. President Donald Trump in 2017 posted on Twitter, “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.” And just like politics, it’s easy to tune out opposing viewpoints through social media and blog sites.

But we should strive to tune in to what others have to say, including the many who have strong views about the monument but have declined to participate in the debate so far, citing state law and private property considerations. In a time when partisanship and tribalism is the norm in public policy debates, civility should be the defining factor as “Fame” faces this storm.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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