I’ve lived and newspapered in four North Carolina towns in the past 40-odd years. And this is the only one that’s not now caught up in controversy over a Confederate monument.
That’s mostly because Southern Pines, like neighboring Pinehurst, didn’t even come into existence as a town until it sprang up three decades after the end of the Civil War. Therefore, unlike so many neighboring communities, it has never had to try to come to terms with such a terrible past.
But in much of the rest of the country, this issue has now achieved front-and-center status at this time of renewed racial awareness, as well it might. We can no longer do what so many of us have done for a century or so — to look the other way and blithely tolerate the presence of these entities in the very governmental hearts of so many states, counties and cities.
Take the pretty little town of Morganton, over on the edge of the Blue Ridge. After I moved there from Miami way back in 1973 (the point at which I became a North Carolinian), it didn’t take me long to get used to the statue of a Southern soldier standing there atop a marble tower on the Burke County courthouse grounds. Hardly gave it a second thought.
In recent days, though, there has been a spirited debate in Morganton about the possible removal of the monument — which, according to Mayor Ronnie Thompson, “bothers a lot of people.”
Last year, a midnight protester climbed up and spattered the soldier’s face with silver paint. So far, that soldier is holding his ground, though the topic seems unlikely to go away.
Then there’s the Cleveland County seat of Shelby, less than an hour’s drive south of Morganton, my home in the early 1980s. It, too, has had a statue of a Confederate soldier standing on its courthouse square for more than a century, alertly facing north with rifle in hand. And because of it, the atmosphere in this place that bills itself as “the City of Pleasant Living” has been a little less than pleasant lately.
“The monument has become a point of focus,” said a recent report, “as groups continue gathering uptown following the death of George Floyd and efforts to not only remove the monument, but other vestiges of racism, have gained traction. … For many, the statue serves as a visible symbol of the South’s darker past, when the Ku Klux Klan was active in Cleveland County.”
Last but certainly not least is the larger city of Salisbury, halfway between Charlotte and Greensboro — where things have now moved far beyond mere discussion.
As I wrote three years ago, I had deeply mixed feelings about the powerful monument standing there on an island in the middle of the city’s main drag. This statue, which I described as “a stunning work of art,” stood — and still stands — just yards from the Salisbury Post building, where I worked from 1982 to 1993.
“This was no rigid, run-of-the-mill statue glorifying some general,” I wrote. “It was — and still is — a beautiful and evocative sculpture showing a winged angel stoically supporting a fallen young soldier.”
But that phrase “and still is” won’t apply much longer. After years of argument, which in recent months has grown dangerous and threatened to surge out of control, the Salisbury City Council voted unanimously the other day to declare the statue “an ongoing threat to public safety.” The town gave the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy 10 days to agree to a deal that will relocate the monument to a more out-of-the-way spot in a cemetery several blocks away.
As of this writing, such monuments have come down — or are about to — in well more than a dozen cities across the United States, from Alexandria, Va., all the way down and across to Houston, Texas.
In just the past few days, protesters pulled down two statues of Confederate soldiers in Raleigh — after which Gov. Roy Cooper ordered the removal of three others. A giant statue of Robert E. Lee came down in Washington, D.C. More seem likely to fall in coming days, given the mood.
And what should be done with such sculptures once they have come down? That is a difficult question. Up in Chapel Hill, I’ve heard endless arguments about what should ultimately happen to “Silent Sam,” the Confederate statue that protesters brought down after weeks of protest a couple of years ago.
To me, the ideal answer is not to topple or break up or deface or try to burn these offensive relics. Instead, why not follow the Salisbury example and just move them from such a provocative central location to a more secluded and less confrontational one. If not a cemetery, then perhaps a museum or gallery of some kind.
In any case, they’re clearly the last thing we need daily staring down at us in such a tense and troubled time as this.
Steve Bouser is the retired editor and Opinion editor of The Pilot. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.