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Why Can’t North Carolina Let Go of the Lost Cause?

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On a cloudless day in October 1909, North Carolina governor William W. Kitchin addressed a crowd at the dedication of a granite and bronze Confederate monument in Granville County. Thousands took part in the day's festivities, which included a parade and music. As the crowd waited for the statue's unveiling, "the rebel yell broke against the sky as the band struck the first inspiring notes of Dixie," according to a contemporaneous account.

Kitchin used the dedication to profess his belief in the supremacy of the white race.

"We have seen the white man come in contact with the brown man of the tropics, and the brown man went down," he said. "We have seen him knock at the gates of the yellow man in the East, and they opened at his will. We have seen him face the black man in his native African home, and the black man gave him the path. We have seen him press the red man, and the red man is disappearing from the face of the earth. ... You see what the whole country is beginning to recognize, that it is not in the power of all the armies ever drilled or of all the constitutions ever written to make the white and black races equal."

The statue, which cost $3,000 and was sponsored by the Granville Grays Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, was one of dozens of Confederate monuments that popped up around North Carolina from about 1880–1920—a boom time for Confederate monument construction in the state. Among the many statues built during that period were three that today sit on the grounds of the State Capitol: the Confederate Women's Monument, the Confederate Soldiers Monument, and the Henry Lawson Wyatt Monument, a depiction of the first Confederate soldier to die in battle in the Civil War.

For the past six months, those statues have been at the center of a much larger debate about the place of Confederate monuments in public spaces. That conversation has been reawakened by deadly acts of violence committed under the banner of white supremacy, including the 2015 massacre at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the infamous events in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer, when a rally led by white nationalists in defense of a statue of Robert E. Lee led to the murder of an antiracist activist. After Charlottesville, activists doubled down on demands to remove statues celebrating the Confederacy, and officials from big cities like Austin, Texas, to smaller towns like Gainesville, Florida, responded. In Baltimore, the city's Confederate statues were hauled off in the middle of the night.

In North Carolina, calls to remove the state's 140-plus monuments did not fall on deaf ears, but neither were they met with Baltimore's decisiveness. Instead, the state has spent more than six months debating the issue. (Except in Durham, where demonstrators tore down a Confederate statue two days after Charlottesville.) That's because there are legal issues at play, even in liberal urban locales where most residents would like to see the monuments gone.

In 2015, the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed a law preventing local officials from removing any statue from public property without signoff from the N.C. Historical Commission. The law means that a petition filed by Governor Cooper to relocate the three Confederate monuments to a historic battlefield in Johnston County will have to ultimately be approved by the eleven-member commission. Last week, the commission held a public hearing on Cooper's request, which the vast majority of speakers opposed.

Those speakers may well reflect the will of the state's population. Multiple polls released last fall showed that about three-fifths of North Carolina residents want to keep Confederate monuments in place.

Many of the people who vehemently opposed Cooper's plan at last week's hearing expressed concerns that removing or altering the monuments would constitute historical erasure. It's an argument commonly deployed in the debate over Confederate statues: If we move one statue, what's next? As one speaker said, "Taking down monuments and flags hasn't improved life anywhere it has been done. ... Only three groups have been successful in taking down monuments: ISIS terrorists, Bolsheviks in 1917, and modern communists in America."

More than anything, though, the comments revealed just how little their most ardent defenders know about the history of the monuments at the center of the debate—and the lies they are willing to tell themselves.

Most of the monuments were not erected in the years immediately following the Civil War. Rather, the boom kicked off in the 1880s, as Southern states began enacting Jim Crow laws, and continued through the 1920s, an era that saw a second coming of the Ku Klux Klan.

Indeed, according to W. Fitzhugh Brundage, the William B. Umstead Professor of History at UNC-Chapel Hill, North Carolina erected fewer than thirty Confederate memorials between 1865 and 1890 but dedicated more than 130 over the next fifty years. From about 1940–80, monument construction slowed down but revved back up in the 1990s. Surprisingly, there have been more monuments to the Confederacy put up since 1990 in North Carolina than at any time since the 1930s.

Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that there are more than fifteen hundred public symbols to the Confederacy throughout the nation, with the fourth-highest number in North Carolina.

The statues were built not just to celebrate the Confederate veterans of the war but also to glorify the cause of the Confederacy—which, as Brundage notes, "was an armed nation created to defend the institution of slavery." Indeed, Confederate leaders were forthright about their reasons for secession. Consider, for example, Mississippi's declaration of secession: "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world."

Monument supporters could be just as explicit. As Brundage explains, many of the Confederacy's participants used the monuments as an opportunity to voice their commitment to white supremacy.

"All we have to do," he says, "is to look at the dedication speeches that were given by the people who erected the monuments and by public officials to see pages after pages of testimonials to the preservation of Anglo-Saxon civilization and that the Confederacy was a model, the archetype of what whites should do to defend Anglo-Saxons."

Consider Kitchin's speech, or this excerpt from Julian Carr in 1913 at the unveiling of the Silent Sam statue at UNC-Chapel Hill: "The present generation, I am persuaded, scarcely takes note of what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo-Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war, when the facts are, that their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo-Saxon race in the South." Carr also boasted of horse-whipping "a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds" for the sin of insulting a white Southern lady.

And yet, it's not uncommon to hear the narrative that the "War Between the States" was really about "states' rights" and a rebellion against Northern "tyranny," and as such, the statues are monuments to liberty. This belief is one of the more insidious accomplishments of the mythologizers of the Confederacy, Brundage argues.

"The idea that somehow the Confederacy was representative of little people who were going to be walked all over by bureaucratic tyranny has lingered on, and now it is a creed for a certain type of person," he says. "And it's preposterous. The Confederate mythology provides a clichéd kind of populist small-government-versus-big-government, liberty-versus-tyranny argument that can be wheeled out on a moment's notice on any issue."

Perhaps those clinging to this revisionist tale do so because accepting the truth means grappling with the unsavory realities of one's own history. Some people are ready to do that, which may signal a new willingness to take on the legacy of the Confederacy. At last week's hearing, for instance, one woman likened the monuments to a mask, whitewashing her ancestors' cowardice and inhumanity. For another, whose ancestor fought for the Confederacy: "That fight may have been my family's at that time, but we have all changed."

For many people, too, the monuments signal a hostile and imposing expression of power. Winifred Richardson, whose great-grandfather, a slave, bought his freedom at age thirteen, says she feels "sick" every time she walks past the Capitol monuments, which she believes were put there to intimidate African Americans.

If the polling is accurate, Richardson and the handful of others who voiced support for moving the monuments don't speak for most Tar Heels. But it's worth asking how those numbers would change if more North Carolinians really grappled with why the monuments were created and what exactly they were intended to honor.

Brundage believes few people are truly aware of the statues' history.

"I think most people don't know anything about the monuments," he says. "I can't tell you how many people told me that they had never really paid much attention to Silent Sam on the UNC campus until the dedication speech was published. And then they were like, 'Oh my god, that monument has got to go!'"

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