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Why NC Gov. Roy Cooper wants Confederate statues removed from state grounds

Confederate statues should be removed from state property, Gov. Roy Cooper said in a public message Tuesday.

Cooper has asked the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources to find out how much it would cost to remove the monuments and provide options for relocating them to places where they can be “studied in context.”

But a 2015 law is likely to make it difficult for the Democratic governor to move any monuments, and the Republican-controlled General Assembly shows no signs of changing the law.

Cooper’s statement comes the day after a crowd in Durham toppled a Confederate statue outside the old Durham County courthouse and after the violent white supremacists’ rally in Charlottesville last weekend brought new attention to North Carolina’s law protecting monuments and statues.

He wrote a statement posted to the online publishing platform Medium.

“Some people cling to the belief that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights. But history is not on their side,” Cooper wrote. “We cannot continue to glorify a war against the United States of America fought in the defense of slavery. These monuments should come down.

“Our Civil War history is important, but it belongs in textbooks and museums – not a place of allegiance on our Capitol grounds.”

The N.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans did not respond to requests for comment.

Three Confederate monuments sit on State Capitol grounds, according to a state database: the Confederate Soldiers Monument, the Confederate Women’s Monument, and the Henry Lawson Wyatt Monument for the man purported to be the first Confederate soldier killed in action.

A Confederate statue on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus called Silent Sam would also be subject to removal. The statue has been the focus of student protests for years.

Cooper also wants the 2015 law protecting monuments repealed.

“Cities, counties and the state must have the authority and opportunity to make these decisions,” he wrote.

Others are calling for repeal of the law, which requires permission from the N.C. Historical Commission to remove, relocate or alter state-owned monuments or memorials. Even with the commission’s blessing, the law puts limits on relocating “objects of remembrance.” It prohibits moving them to museums unless they were originally located in one, and requires any monument that is moved to go to an area of similar prominence.

Joining in the call for repeal, U.S. Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat, wrote: “While communities in other states have taken steps to remove their own monuments, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted a law in 2015 taking this power out of local leaders’ hands. This misguided and cynical law diminishes the power of citizens to petition their government and should be repealed immediately.”

It was unclear this week whether any person or group had asked the Historical Commission for permission to move or remove a monument. Other states, including Tennessee, have similar laws. The historical commission in that state denied a 2015 request from Memphis officials to remove a Confederate statue from a city park. Memphis officials plan to appeal.

Repealing the North Carolina law will be a long shot in the legislature. One of the law’s Senate sponsors, Republican Tommy Tucker of Waxhaw, said this week he continues to support it, saying its main purpose was to protect history.

In the interview Monday, he maintained that the Civil War did not start over slavery.

“It was the North and their tariffs over Southern goods,” he said.

Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the N.C. Republican Party, referred questions to a Republican House member, John Blust of Guilford County, who supported the law. Blust replied to a question about monuments with a text message criticizing Cooper’s response to the toppling of the Durham statue as “extremely weak.”

State Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin asked Republicans and others to support a repeal.

“Only through removing these monuments will our state begin to heal the sores of war,” he said in a statement. “I ask that Republicans join with Democrats and concerned citizens in allowing communities to remove symbols of hate and racism. Morality and decency and respect, not politics, demand it."

The law’s opponents in the legislature said this week that the law probably cannot be repealed. It passed with overwhelming majorities in 2015, winning final approval in the aftermath of the Charleston, S.C., murders of nine African-American worshipers and the re-examination of Confederate symbols on government property.

Cooper also wants the state to defeat a bill that grants immunity to drivers who hit protesters. The bill passed the House, but a state senator said this week that there were no plans for a Senate vote.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner