Tear Down this Monument

In light of recent push to remove Confederate statues, here’s the column I published in the Raleigh News & Observer on Feb. 8, 2009 calling on then Gov. Bev. Perdue to move to remove the Confederate memorial that still stands before the state capitol.

Raleigh seems poised to write a new chapter of its history as the City Council considers creating a dedicated funding stream for public art.

The proposal would require that one half of one percent of the capital construction cost of new projects fund public art. It would be a bold step in remaking the look and feel of the city. This may be a baby step — many comparable cities fund at one or two percent. But I have no doubt that one day soon we will be walking, running and, in the process, taking flight.

Public art is not a luxury. It is a mirror that reflects a community’s values and ambitions, its sense of itself. The grand monuments of Washington, the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, the Eiffel Tower in Paris — all capture the best spirit of those special places.

Here in Raleigh, we can take pride in the beautiful Cree Shimmer Wall that adorns the new convention center. Depicting a spreading tree that moves and gleams in the roiling winds, the Shimmer Wall captures the exuberant energy that is transforming our community while paying homage to its tradition as the City of Oaks.

As we create the future of public art, we should also look to its past. The time is ripe to reconsider the most prominent piece of public art in Raleigh: the Confederate monument that guards the State Capitol.

Since it was erected in 1895, the 75-foot-high statue has been the city’s signature symbol. Like the best works of public art, it long reflected the values and attitudes of the community — of most white citizens, that is, who ruled the city through laws that disenfranchised African-Americans.

In 2009, this monument honoring the Lost Cause no longer reflects the feelings of North Carolinians. If we held a statewide referendum, I believe a majority of residents would vote to remove it from its singular place of privilege.

The common argument defending Confederate symbols is that they celebrate heritage, not hate. Even if this were the case, we should ask: Is this the heritage Tar Heels want to trumpet most loudly? Of all the things we can be proud of, does our Rebel past still top the list?

History shows that the monument was never just a tribute to fallen husbands, brothers and sons. It was conceived, erected and sustained by the poisonous racial politics of white supremacy.

After the Civil War, many Southerners dedicated cemeteries to their dead. In Raleigh, the Ladies Memorial Association spearheaded the push for a Confederate burial ground in 1866-67, racing against the arrival of federal troops dispatched to occupy the South after the defeated states refused to pass the 14th Amendment guaranteeing black male suffrage.

When this period of Reconstruction ended in 1876 and the racist Democratic machine regained power, Confederate memorials across the South took on a more aggressive and public tone. Local and state funds supplemented private donations, and the monuments became potent symbols of the new/old order.

While paying homage to the dead, they reflected the relentless effort to justify the Confederate cause and the brutal push to suppress black rights that ushered in the long era of Jim Crow.

The call for Raleigh’s public monument was sounded in the 1880s and became a drumbeat in the early 1890s. Then it hit a snag. Economic troubles led to the ouster of the Democratic party in the 1894 elections by a coalition of white Populists and mostly black Republicans. Initially, leaders of this new “fusion” government balked at providing the money needed to complete it.

In response, historian Catherine Bishir reports, its supporters used “race-baiting techniques,” criticizing the legislature for passing a resolution honoring the recently deceased black leader Frederick Douglass “while delaying the promised $10,000 loan for the monument.”

Cowed fusionists quickly provided the funds.

Two weeks before the monument was dedicated, Raleigh voters, spurred on by white surpemacist cartoons in the Democratic party’s main organ, The News & Observer, rejected fusionist legislation that would have permitted the direct election of officials. The triumphant N&O headline proclaimed: “The City Still Ours … No Negro Rule in Raleigh.”

That was the backdrop for the ceremony on May 20, 1895. A crowd of perhaps 30,000 people that included Stonewall Jackson’s widow listened as the day’s featured speaker, Alfred Moore Waddell, cast the Confederate dead as American patriots.

Waddell would soon turn those words into action. In 1898, he was a leader of the statewide campaign that used the explicit language of white supremacy, violence and vote-stealing to defeat the fusionists. Waddell became the mayor of Wilmington after the incumbent was forced to resign in the only coup in American history.

Blacks across North Carolina and the South would not enjoy even the semblance of equality until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. During those bleak decades, the Confederate monument was a towering symbol of the state’s oppressive power structure.

Born in hate, the time has come for the monument to die.

We should not erase all evocations of our tortured history, removing every statue or street name honoring those who espoused abhorrent views.

One could argue that Gov. Charles Aycock, an architect of the white supremacist campaign, should not be seen simply through the lens of race. The same might be said for The N&O’s editor at the time, Josephus Daniels.

The Confederate monument offers little such complexity.

Yet it remains Raleigh’s most prominent piece of public art, a signature symbol with an ugly past representing values and ambitions that no longer reflect who we are.

Gov. Perdue, tear down this monument.

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