Editorial: Who should decide our monuments’ fate?

The Observer editorial board

A monument in Mecklenburg.
A monument in Mecklenburg. OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

To understand what a bill protecting N.C. monuments is trying to accomplish, it’s important to understand what the bill isn’t.

Senate Bill 22, which won tentative approval in the N.C. House Monday night, would 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.” The only way to remove any such object would be for N.C. legislators to pass a state law.

Those remembrances, of course, would include Confederate monuments in Mecklenburg County and across the state.

But here’s what the bill isn’t: A deliberate attempt to save those monuments from the anti-Confederate backlash that followed the killing of nine last month in Charleston.

In fact, the bill was filed back in February, and it unanimously passed the Senate in April. The bill’s author, Republican Sen. Dan Soucek of Boone, says he didn’t file it because of any particular controversy.

Soucek also introduced a bill that replaces the Washington, D.C., statue of former N.C. Gov. Charles B. Aycock, a white supremacist, with one of Billy Graham. So Soucek doesn’t seem to be trying to protect racist sentiment.

What he’s protecting, he says, is something else. “It’s looking at how we respectfully preserve the history of this state without it going up and down with public opinion,” he told the (Raleigh) News & Observer.

His bill, however, would place that authority not in the diverse communities across the state, but in the seats of the General Assembly.

That presumes, incorrectly, that N.C. lawmakers make decisions on bills based solely on their merits. The reality: When a Republican introduces a bill in this legislature – or when leadership endorses one – rank-and-file Republicans generally line up dutifully behind it. The same was true when Democrats controlled the legislature.

The bill also is yet another illustration of N.C. Republicans believing they should make decisions that are better made by cities and towns.

The weakness of that approach is especially apparent in bills like SB 22. Conversations about local monuments that honor local soldiers should stay local. County and city officials know their communities best, and they along with residents can participate in thoughtful debate over delicate issues.

That’s what at a July 7 Mecklenburg Board of Commissioners meeting. Members of the public spoke passionately for and against monuments here, including a 1929 Confederate memorial near uptown. Commissioners decided not to take any action on that monument.

This editorial board has supported keeping Mecklenburg’s monuments, which unlike the co-opted Confederate flag, are artifacts that passively display our history and mistakes.

There’s certainly room for disagreement on the issue, although that shouldn’t include defacing memorials in protest, as happened here last week. Whatever your feeling about the monuments, it’s a decision that belongs to this county, not state lawmakers who believe they know what’s best for everyone.

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