Politics & Government

NC House could ban removal of Confederate and other monuments

A statue of a Confederate solder looks north on Hillsboro Street from the traffic circle of downtown Pittsboro, NC.
A statue of a Confederate solder looks north on Hillsboro Street from the traffic circle of downtown Pittsboro, NC. hlynch@newsobserver.com

As the national debate over the future of Confederate flags and memorials continues, state legislators want to make it harder to remove controversial monuments.

The House Homeland Security Committee approved a bill Wednesday to ban state agencies and local governments from taking down any “object of remembrance” on public property that “commemorates an event, a person, or military service that is part of North Carolina’s history.” That would mean a state law would be needed to remove a monument or relocate one to a site that’s not of “similar prominence.”

Republican supporters of the bill stressed that it passed the Senate unanimously in April – long before the debate over Confederate symbols was sparked by the killing of nine people at a Charleston, S.C., church.

“This bill has nothing to do with what’s happened with the Confederate flag, but I think that’s a good reason we need something like this – to stave off the flames of passion,” said Rep. Michael Speciale, a New Bern Republican who chaired Wednesday’s committee meeting. “This is why the General Assembly will still be able to remove or replace these items if necessary. We’re supposed to be ones who do not get caught up in the fad of the moment.”

And while Senate Democrats voted for the bill in April, some House Democrats are opposed. Rep. Marvin Lucas, a Cumberland County Democrat, said the state shouldn’t make it harder to change monuments deemed offensive.

“There are some monuments around the state that really relate to a bad experience related to subjugation, and I’m addressing those kinds of issues,” he said. “It’s certainly not intended to be a knee-jerk reaction to anything that’s happened in recent times.”

But Rep. Larry Pittman, a Concord Republican, said taking down monuments and memorials reminds him of the George Orwell novel “1984.”

“One of the things the government did in that book was to remove the history,” Pittman said. “History needs to be retained – you don’t know who you are without history. I don’t think the government has the right to change what history is.”

Rep. Marilyn Avila, a Raleigh Republican, said that Confederate memorials were created by grieving families as the country sought to heal its Civil War wounds. “When you talk about memorials and remembrances, the point of time at which they were erected is extremely relevant,” she said. “A lot of these things were done shortly after the War between the States.”

There are about 120 Civil War memorials across the state, according to state records. About a dozen are dedicated to Union soldiers, and about 100 are clearly related to the Confederacy. The monuments are in cemeteries and on public and private properties.

A number of the memorials have been vandalized in recent weeks, including the “Silent Sam” statue at UNC, erected in 1913, which was spraypainted with graffiti that said “black lives matter.”

Mecklenburg County Commissioners are considering whether to remove a Confederate memorial on county property that depicts the battle flag. If the legislation debated Wednesday passes the House, the county would lose the power to take down the memorial.

The bill doesn’t specifically address the naming of buildings or roads. UNC trustees voted in May to rename Saunders Hall as “Carolina Hall,” after students and others protested having a campus building named for the 19th-century Ku Klux Klan leader William Saunders.

The legislation, entitled the “Historic Artifact Management and Patriotism Act,” would define “object of remembrance” as “a monument, memorial, plaque, statue, marker or display of a permanent character.”

Sen. Dan Soucek, a Boone Republican, filed the bill in early February and said it wasn’t prompted by a particular controversy.

“This isn’t dealing with a specific issue,” he said Wednesday. “It’s looking at how we respectfully preserve the history of this state without it going up and down with public opinion.”

Soucek is among the sponsors of another bill that deals with a statue: A proposal to replace a statue of former Gov. Charles B. Aycock in the U.S. Capitol building with a statue of evangelist Billy Graham. Aycock, governor from 1901 to 1905, has come under fire for his white supremacist views. That bill passed the House in a 71-28 vote in April, but it hasn’t yet received a hearing in the Senate.

With all the talk about the South’s Confederate legacy, Rep. Graig Meyer said the monument legislation comes at the wrong time. “To me, moving quickly to a prohibition is not the right thing to do when we need that civil dialogue,” the Hillsborough Democrat said.

The bill could be heard on the House floor as soon as next week.

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