Confederate monuments must go – in an orderly way

The Observer editorial board

A protester kicks the toppled statue of a Confederate soldier after it was pulled down in Durham on Monday.
A protester kicks the toppled statue of a Confederate soldier after it was pulled down in Durham on Monday. AP

White supremacist David Duke praised Donald Trump during the presidential campaign, saying then-candidate Trump was echoing things Duke had long been saying. This past weekend, Duke said the march by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., on Friday and Saturday was a fulfillment of Trump’s promise.

On Tuesday, Duke praised Trump again after the president once again blamed both sides for a tragedy that began with white supremacists marching with torches and ended in the death of three people.

That’s about all North Carolinians need to know as state leaders confront what to do about Confederate monuments here following the Charlottesville horror and the defacing of a monument in Durham on Monday.

Fortunately, Gov. Roy Cooper said late Tuesday that such monuments belong in museums and textbooks and called for the repeal of the 2015 law preventing their removal. If the legislature follows Cooper’s lead – as it should – it would go a long way to solving one of the most vexing problems we face.

We can’t condone vigilantism or the spontaneous destruction of public property as occured in Durham. As much as we agree that such memorials have run their course in a country undergoing massive demographic shifts, there must be an orderly process put in place to remove them from public places of honor.

And that’s the dilemma. Given the decades-long entrenchment of such monuments and the recent history of the legislature (which included a rollback of voting rights that a court deemed textbook racial exclusion), it’s hard to imagine any such process seen as legitimate enough to convince protesters to trust it instead of taking matters into their own hands again.

Nonetheless, a serious process must commence, and soon, because this issue isn’t going away.

As America gets closer to majority-minority status, it will be harder to ignore the kinds of racial contradictions that have long defined us. We cannot go on preaching that all men are created equal while collectively celebrating men who undercut that principle by participating in slavery, one of the world’s great evils. Groups that had long been shut out of the dialogue about who should be honored in public spaces are growing larger and won’t be silenced. Specious arguments about not wanting to sanitize history won’t deter them – because they know the monuments, memorials and flags they’ve had to live with are sanitized versions of American history, and that challenging them is an attempt to force the country to grapple with our painful past and its legacy. If we aren’t careful, Monday’s event in Durham will become a precursor to more like it.

We don’t want what happened in Virginia this past weekend to be repeated in North Carolina. Gov. Cooper and other state leaders, elected and otherwise, must be pressured to find a solution. That may involve a commission with teeth, one put on a reasonable, but firm deadline, and given the power to implement change, no matter the broader political climate.

It won’t be easy. But we’ve found our way through tougher challenges. There’s no reason we can’t again.