Monday night in Durham, well-intentioned protestors tore a testament to the Confederacy down from its perch, sending it tumbling 15 feet to feebly fold over. It was glorious, if long overdue. It was also a glimpse at what the future holds for similar pro-CSA statues littered around North Carolina, thanks to the shrewd thinking of a group of Confederate progeny and the state’s modern-day Grand Ole Party.
To understand the current political climate of the North Carolina legislature as a progressive, a liberal, a person with a firm grasp on early-20th-century Southern history, a democratic socialist, or a member of a racial or religious minority is to go bald or grey by the time you’re 25. The North Carolina GOP is both batshit crazy and frustratingly efficient at getting what it wants in the Tar Heel State, and it’s flexed this advantage at seemingly every point it can during its time in the spotlight the past two years.
When the legislature repealed HB2, Republicans loudly voiced their opinion that they had been ripped off more than their cross-aisle counterparts—this was after they held out long enough to get a six-month moratorium on future inclusive bathroom laws bumped up to three years. When recent police body and dash cam videos started actually getting officers in the slightest bit of hot water for beating and gunning down people of color, the NCGOP swiftly passed the HB 972, striking police body camera footage from the list of publicly available government records and requiring a written request for approval to the local police chief or sheriff to view the video privately. The NCGOP’s more radical members are now pushing to ban same-sex marriage, abolish handgun registrations, loosen water pollution restrictions in a state that just fucking had a massive coal ash dumping scandal, and, of course, limit Medicaid expansion. These are just a few among a laundry list of other items the state’s right wing hopes to accomplish while holding a supermajority in both the House and Senate.
The most recent bill to become suddenly, magically applicable to the current trending national storyline comes in the form of Senate Bill 22, a state law passed in 2015, with the following becoming law with the stroke of then-governor Pat McCrory’s pen:
a monument, memorial, or work of art owned by the State may not be removed, relocated, or altered in any way without the approval of the North Carolina Historical Commission
The law was drafted in response to the Silent Sam statue that still stands tall on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus, as some folks wanted (and still want to) tear the fucker down. The bill was praised by Republican members of the House, even in the light of simultaneously occurring Charleston tragedy, with the conservative group claiming that it was doing the right thing by not allowing citizens the easy way out and ignoring history.
“I fear that a lot of people are starting to view history in the wrong context,” Rep. John Blust, a Greensboro Republican, said of the Confederate memorials. “They want it to be condemned when it should be seen in the vast tapestry that led this country to greatness.”
Tommy Tucker, the Republican co-sponsor of the 2016 bill, told the News & Observer on Monday that he still supports the bill and the monuments, and he echoed the same point made by Blust and every other Heritage-Not-Hate motherfucker since the statues went up: It’s about the history.
“The reason it was passed was to protect history,” Tucker said. “I don’t have any misgivings about having the bill passed. Monuments can stand where they have been for 150 years or more.”
Some Democrats, believing they are being reasonable and moderate and everything, will soon jump up in the House and exclaim, “Why, we needn’t do away with the statues completely! Let’s put them in a museum, where they can be viewed in proper context.” How smart, how innovative, how peaceful, how ... utterly predictable. From Senate Bill 22:
An object of remembrance may not be relocated to a museum, cemetery, or mausoleum unless it was originally placed at such a location.
The North Carolina GOP may be despicable, but it is not stupid. Too many people equate low ethical standards with low IQ—“How could all these rednecks vote for Trump?!?” they exclaim as the middle class flocks to whoever fools them into believing their tax plan is lower, funding the party that has slyly cocked a gun aimed at its own head, daring them to make a move and suffer the consequences of Big Government.
See, like most proposals this group has made that concern the physical, mental, or emotional well-being of minority groups in their constituency, the statue-protection law was not passed because of controversy revolving around one statue, though. It was passed for the exact moment we find ourselves in yet again—the moment when minorities of all sorts, including ideological ones, start to push back.
The statue itself was, objectively, a shitty statue; constructed of cheap sheet metal, the legs bent like Play-Doh upon impact, and the statue’s head partially gave way to the boot of an emboldened protestor. But even after the crowd moved on to the Durham Police Department headquarters, still undergoing a $1.96 million renovation, what remained of the statue, a granite base sitting behind four stone cannon balls, stood tall. The inscription on the front of the statue’s base reads, “IN MEMORY OF “THE BOYS WHO WORE THE GRAY.”” Tucked away on the left side of the base is the date the statue was erected, May 10, 1924; on the right, another inscription reads, “THIS MEMORIAL ERECTED BY THE PEOPLE OF DURHAM COUNTY.”
This information is only slightly important to the larger conversation that’s being had about the Confederate statues that still cut through the southern skies, but it does matter with regards to how the statue toppling is viewed, because 1) it proves Tucker and any of the GOP’s other history-rewriting liars are afraid to burn political capital by airing their true feelings and 2) it provides the opportunity to reflect on the factual circumstances surrounding the statue’s raising.
At the time of its erection, the city of Durham was home to roughly 21,000 people, less than 10 percent of the number of people that now claim it as their hometown, though the city was in the midst of a 10-year boom in which its population would more than double. Durham was a tobacco hub where farmers similar to my grandfather would take their season’s yield to be underpaid by the Duke family, which accrued its fortune by way of a tobacco monopoly. (The patriarch, Washington, was a Confederate soldier who owned a homestead, that, while not a plantation, still took advantage of slave labor.) As was the case with other rural North Carolina towns, Durham benefitted from a suddenly wealthy businessman hoping to build upon initial financial success by pouring resources into the city and his property, including the family’s 1924 purchase of a university located just minutes away from the downtown area.
While the white community’s businesses grew and flourished, Durham’s African-American community was building its own economy and secondary education infrastructure, complete with a Black Wall Street (one that encountered a fate slightly kinder than Tulsa’s) and an HBCU that would come to be known as North Carolina Central. This advancement was completed despite the vitriolic rhetoric and actions employed by the all-white state legislature in the wake of the Jim Crow era. The body removed every black voter from the voting rolls by 1904, a move made by multiple state legislatures in the South that would be upheld by the Supreme Court in Giles V. Harris. It also allowed for its eugenics program to enforce sterilizations with a focus on the black female population; 39 percent of the victims were African-American, the majority being women under 20 years old. This same Durham community would continue to encounter all this and lead the charge against segregation and voting laws 30 years later, when Martin Luther King, Jr., came to town to support local sit-ins. Now the city is represented by a black mayor and black police chief; the community and the state’s black population as a whole is still forced to fight gerrymandering and voter ID laws aiming to reduce black voter turnout.
The plainly named Confederate Monument was constructed by the now-shuttered McNeel Marble Company (the Georgia-based company made a good deal of money off of contracts for a number of Confederate statues now found across the South) and overseen by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The intentions of the Monument’s creators, according to the base, were supposedly to honor the boys and men with tar-stained heels that fought and lost the Civil War; like with the current-day Republicans, it too is telling a lie. It was a statue built as a reminder not just to white males, but to Northerners and the black community—no matter the letter of the law, this is our land, whether that mean white males or the Confederacy, and whether that is explicitly stated by those that support its standing. (With Silent Sam, it’s a bit more on-the-nose thanks to some handy record-keepers who snagged a copy of Julian Carr’s dedication speech, in which he brags about whipping “a Negro wench” about 100 yards from where the statue still stands and proceeds to wax poetic about the superior Anglo-Saxons.)
And yet, with all this information a couple clicks away, the NCGOP will continue to point to history and tradition as it wrests the right to vote away from the people that said beloved history and tradition trampled upon the most.
One thing to note about modern rural North Carolina culture is that much of the social interaction that occurs relies on an old-school sense of familiarity and faux-respect—from a young age, it’s “Yes m’am,” “No sir,” “I’ve got the door for you,” “My pleasure,” and all the conversational tics that supposedly make you a good, upstanding citizen; it’s respecting your elders, to the point that you’re silenced when you challenge any of their particularly batshit views; it’s reminiscing about the “way things were” without ever actually engaging with how things were; it’s allowing Confederate or even Nazi flags to fly in your neighborhood unchallenged. When challengers do step forward, they’re greeted by a person the state’s Good Conservatives will plead does not represent them.
Unless provoked, a member of the modern KKK or a neo-Nazi out in public is as likely to greet you with a handshake and a smile (if you’re white and Christian, of course) and ask you about your day as any other. These are the same people who will bash any progress made by a Democratic-led legislature, state or national, point to the rise of Big Government, rattle on about state’s rights, then cry foul when a social service they rely on is cut, or scream until their throat is raw that defacing government property is the most heinous of all crimes. The only refreshing irony I bask in every time one of these pro-CSA, pro-Small Government heads comes across my timeline is knowing the Confederacy lost the Civil War in part because of the CSA’s refusal to compile anything close to resembling a cohesive national government, thus limiting their number of men thanks to draft-hating politicians and hampering their ability to form nation-wide supply chains for food, ammunition, or medical supplies.
The history the majority of students are taught in the rural areas—both through the public education system and cultural osmosis (family, friends, church folks, etc.)—is likely a slightly different version than the one heard and accepted by those even in Durham or Greensboro or Charlotte, let alone a Connecticut prep school. The people who are shielded from some of the ugliness that comes with a pro-South rural culture—the wealthy or those in the more progressive urban areas—tend to react to legislation of this ilk with disbelief, when in fact such bills very much embody what the state truly is, just not the parts they hold dear. The War of Northern Aggression is real, not as a historical fact but as a still-present ideology that exists in the minds of those told similarly 40 years ago. For the same reason a state senator can get away with comparing Black Lives Matter to the goddamn KKK, the false narrative is passed along because to believe other wise puts too many people on the wrong side of the argument; rather than accept and confront this, they move the argument.
The general failure to drive home the fact that the South was in fact on the wrong side does not lie with teachers or the school system, but with the communities that foster said teachers and school systems and actively or passively encourage the continuation of a particular disrespectful strain of Southern pride, which festers and boils when those that carry it believe it must be shielded from the light and then bursts when finally exposed. Cries of “The South Will Rise Again” are now mostly made in jest, save the moment’s pause after the last word leaves one’s lips and a brief consideration is made. The margin between a typical fourth-generation Southern conservative and the ones at Charlottesville is neither as slim or as wide as most think.
For those that live this experience and then are able to recognize the twisted nature of the culture’s approval of the Civil War upon reflection, looking toward the future after a moment like this, when people actually take politics into their own hands with a non-violent action and do what that their own government has denied them the ability to do is exciting and empowering; for a split second, thoughts of HB2 fade and are replaced by the foolhardy ones typical of a young, ex-North Carolinian leftist such as myself. Even seeing the Durham Police Department stand by as it crashed down and then issue a statement saying, basically, “Not our problem!” was enough to give me hope about future statues coming down.
But it’s the response from the leadership that supposedly should be fighting for this that then yanks you back, snapping your sense of progressive hopefulness and reminding you that you live in a world in which the powerful make half-measures to ensure career longevity rather than immediate positive change.
No matter your opinion of the protestors’ decision to do what their government prevented itself from doing, shame is at least one of the elicited emotions upon seeing one of these CSA altars in-person—shame that you live in a society that still allows such monuments to oppression to stand; shame that your elected officials won’t and can’t do dick about it; shame that the other elected officials would love to see more Confederate monuments; or shame that the current progressive values our society (partially) want to embrace would gravely disappoint the person the structure was meant to honor. Either side, shame.
The statue placed outside the old Durham Courthouse was one built and placed without the consent of the black community, and unsurprisingly, it did nothing, in spirit or in physical presence, to attempt to mend the fractured relationship they had with the Durham community. Neither did just about anything the majority in the state government supported for the next 40 years (a generous low-balling.) Plainly, that is why it was torn down—it was never meant for the entire community, just a part that, in 1924, ran the whole fucking state free of women and people of color.
It seems fitting, then, that the statue outside the courthouse—the one erected by ahistorical citizens attempting yet another grasp at control of the narrative, the one erected by the many in an attempt to remind the few—was torn down in a matter of seconds by the very few the statue meant to intimidate. Now, with its 2015 law, the NCGOP is once again daring its constituents to act out and be labeled rioters and criminals.
If they don’t listen to reason—and nothing in recent years has given me hope that they will—then by all means, be peaceful rioters, be peaceful criminals, but tear the fuckers down, because the General Assembly, in the bloated, shameless form it’s currently taken, sure as hell won’t.