CHAPEL HILL — Nearly 1,000 people rallied at the UNC Chapel Hill for the removal of “Silent Sam,” a Confederate soldier statue on the main campus on Tuesday.
“Hey, hey! Ho, ho! These racist statues got to go!” chanted a crowd that was kept away from the statue by two rings of barricades and police in riot gear.
The Confederate statue has sat on the upper quad facing Franklin Street since 1913. Commissioned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Silent Sam memorializes the university alumni who fought in and lost their lives on behalf of the southern states in the American Civil War.
Two people were arrested during the rally, said the university’s communications department. No information on the charges levied, or details of the people arrested, were given; although protesters were seen blocking the Orange County Sheriff’s van that transported the demonstrators from the scene.
There was no sign of professed white nationalists at the Chapel Hill rally, which comes just one week after protesters pulled down a “boys in gray” memorial in front of the old Durham courthouse.
The rally highlights a persistent debate in the South over the display of the Confederate battle flag and other symbols of the rebel side in the Civil War, which was fought over the issue of slavery.
Gov. Roy Cooper has joined in support of activist groups working for the removal of Confederate statues in public spaces after dueling rallies in Charlottesville, Va., turned deadly earlier this month.
“Some people cling to the belief that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights. But history is not on their side. We cannot continue to glorify a war against the United States of America fought in the defense of slavery. These monuments should come down,” Cooper wrote in an Op-Ed to Medium, a national online publication.
Cooper has said publicly that UNC has the authority to remove Silent Sam at any time; but as public outcry increases, campus leaders argue that state law only permits the removal of the statue if physical disrepair leaves it a threat to public safety.
“Based on law enforcement agencies’ assessments, we continue to believe that removing the Confederate monument is in the best interest of the safety of our campus, but the university can act only in accordance with the laws of the state of North Carolina,” a statement from UNC-Chapel Hill read Tuesday. “As we continue to seek clear guidance and legal authority to act, we ask for your patience and cooperation to help us maintain as safe an environment as we possibly can.”
Back in Charlottesville on Tuesday, city council members voted unanimously to cover two statues of Confederate war heroes in black fabric as the city still grapples with the unrest that left one dead and many others injured when opposing activists violently clashed in the streets on Aug. 12.
The planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had galvanized white nationalists to descend on Charlottesville to support the monument in a downtown park. But demonstrations turned violent when a visiting Ohio man plowed his car into a group of counterprotesters and killed a 32-year-old woman.
The night before the rally, scores of white supremacists marched with tiki torches through the campus of the University of Virginia in a display that critics called reminiscent of a Ku Klux Klan rally.
The images sparked increased concern about racism and southern statues that memorialize those who fought in support of slave-owning states during the Civil War.
A pending lawsuit is currently challenging the city of Charlottesville’s authority to remove the Lee statue.
In Chapel Hill, university police will guard Silent Sam until state and university officials come to a final decision about his fate as a Tar Heel — in what may very well be Sam’s last semester.
Gina Cherelus and Corey Risinger for Reuters News Service contributed to this article.