Editorial: ‘Fame’ provides comparisons for Salisbury’s two mayoral candidates

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 26, 2021

In addition to the routine business of being mayor, voters in Salisbury’s first mayoral election can directly compare the handling of some hot-button issues by both candidates because they’ve served in the position under the outgoing system so recently.

The relocation of the “Fame” Confederate monument, in particular, provides an opportunity for comparison for Mayor Karen Alexander and Mayor Pro Tem Al Heggins. As the calendar moves further away from the relocation, many Salisburians will happily leave it in the city’s history books, but it remains one of the biggest stories during the incumbent council’s tenure.

After protests for racial justice following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, started to spiral out of control in Salisbury, Alexander implemented a curfew and declared a state of emergency for downtown. Just before that, police wearing riot gear deployed tear gas to disperse protesters, people protested around the Confederate monument for days and a man fired a gun in close proximity to a crowd of demonstrators.

Council members and local residents understandably grew concerned. There was no need to schedule a public meeting; the comments about the need for relocation started rolling in. People opposed to relocation saw the council’s trajectory and chimed in, too.

Alexander’s initial action to move protests away from the monument likely prevented further protests from turning chaotic. She also can claim credit for shepherding a deal to relocate the monument through to completion, but the events surrounding the protests played a big role in convincing people, including council members, it was time to get serious.

From the start, Alexander noted community members led the creation of a relocation deal. When confirming to the Post in June a deal was being worked on, she said city officials hadn’t been in contact with the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Alexander can say “Fame” was moved peacefully under her watch. Other statues were pulled to the ground. “Fame” was not. Salisbury achieved relocation with debate and an agreement.

In Alexander’s first term as mayor, “Fame” largely remained out of public conversation. Then, people were focused on an uptick in gun violence.

With Heggins as mayor, the city’s focus was on having residents talk about the issue. The council also heard from City Attorney Graham Corriher repeatedly about legal considerations. The city held a well-attended public meeting to discuss the relocation of “Fame.” Heggins also attempted to have a meeting with the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Salisbury-Rowan NAACP, Salisbury Indivisible and Women for Community Justice. Only the latter three showed.

Heggins’ move to take action came after the monument was splashed with paint twice — once in August 2018 and a second time in March 2019. Have cool heads and be mindful, she said after the first vandalism. Heggins suggested people take the “high road” after the second incident.

“Clearly, there are forces at work to set an old and unresolved disagreement about this statue on fire,” she said in a statement at the time. “I believe Salisbury residents are strong enough, smart enough and resilient enough to not fall into this nasty trap.”

She was wrong. Fueled by social media algorithms, the deep divisions that still plague society set the “Fame” debate ablaze. People voted against Heggins in 2019 for the way she handled the matter as well as the fact that she started a conversation at all. Alexander and former Mayor Paul Woodson, who also dealt with controversy about the Confederate monument, did not deal with the same vitriol.

The conversation during council meetings fizzled out when Heggins was mayor primarily because of legal questions about the council’s authority. Paint being splashed on the statue twice did not produce the same widespread public safety concerns. The council was left with the option to head to court over the monument’s location. There was never enough momentum behind that.

There’s no “who handled it better” verdict here because the circumstances were so different, but the peaceful resolution is something of which all of Salisbury should be proud.