Cooper petitions Historical Commission for removal of Confederate statues

The petition targets statues on the Old State Capitol grounds, while UNC students threaten to sue the university under the Civil Rights Act for the removal of a 'Silent Sam' statue

The 75-foot-tall Confederate Soldiers Monument looks down Hillsborough Street in downtown Raleigh as it rests on the grounds of the North Carolina State Capitol, Tuesday, September 19, 2017. Confederate statues like this one have sparked a nation-wide debate about their purpose going forward. (Eamon Queeney / North State Journal)

RALEIGH — The North Carolina Historical Commission is scheduled to meet Friday to consider a request made by Gov. Roy Cooper that the body vote to remove and relocate Confederate statues currently placed on the grounds of the Old State Capitol building in Raleigh.

Specifically, the request is to move the three Confederate statues from outside the State Capitol to the Bentonville Battlefield historical site in Johnston County. Machelle Sanders, secretary of the Department of Administration and a Cooper appointee, sent the petition to the state Historical Commission.

A look at the Confederate Women’s Monument on the grounds of the North Carolina State Capitol in downtown Raleigh, Tuesday, September 19, 2017.  (Eamon Queeney / North State Journal)

A 2015 law titled the Historical Artifacts Management and Patriotism Act, gives the state Historical Commission authority over moving Confederate statues, limiting the authority of local officials or activists. Instead of simple removal, the law states that any relocation be to “a site of similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability and access that are within the boundaries of the jurisdiction from which it was relocated.”

The North Carolina Senate voted unanimously for the legislation, including a “Yes” vote from then-state senator and current N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein. Stein, a Democrat, now reportedly says he regrets his vote and would vote against the measure if he had another chance. According to news reports, Stein said the monuments were erected to exude white supremacy and are not about honoring people who fought and died in the Civil War. He said his original vote was aimed more at protecting the American flag.

Previously, Cooper said the commission’s powers were too narrow, which is why he called for the law to be repealed. The petition, however, says the commission can make the call on the Capitol monuments. The monuments need to be moved so they can be preserved, the petition says. It not known if preventing vandalism satisfies the requirements for preserving the statues via relocation.

Protesters, led by a self-proclaimed Marxist who sympathizes with North Korea, pulled down a Confederate monument outside the Durham County Courthouse last month. While Durham police did not take any actions to prevent the toppling of the statue, they did record the events and several of those responsible for the act have since been arrested and charged with felonies.

Additionally, students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have been protesting in recent weeks for the removal of the “Silent Sam” Confederate statue from campus.

Initially, Cooper gave the university system “permission” to remove the statue in the interest of public safety, citing possible harm to protesters as they tore down the monument, but his offer was rebuffed by university officials who said his authority to give such permission could not be sufficiently supported by the law.

The statue, located near Franklin Street on the campus’ north end, has required fencing and police protection to guard against vandalism as protests erupted at the site in response to violence in Charlottesville, Va. The battle between white nationalists and antifa protesters during a support rally and counterprotest aimed at a Confederate monument to Gen. Robert E. Lee on the University of Virginia campus resulted in the death of one woman hit by a car that plowed into the crowd. Dozens were injured as both groups resorted to armed confrontation.

An attorney for a group of students has threatened a federal lawsuit against the school if the statue remains in place, and activists are imploring the commission to include consideration of the “Silent Sam” statue on its agenda this Friday.

The complaint states, “As UNC’s Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office acknowledges, federal laws guarantee a series of rights to members of the UNC campus community. Among the applicable laws are Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which forbid racial discrimination at UNC as an institution of higher learning and a recipient of federal funds. Because Silent Sam violates the rights guaranteed by these and other federal laws, we request that you authorize its immediate removal in order to avoid needless litigation.”

Any federally funded institution (such as UNC) that is deliberately indifferent to a racially hostile learning environment runs afoul of federal law. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights defines a hostile environment under Title VI as “harassing conduct (e.g., physical, verbal, graphic or written) sufficiently severe, pervasive or persistent so as to interfere with or limit the ability of an individual to participate in or benefit from the services, activities or privileges provided by a recipient.”

So far, only the three statues cited in Cooper’s petition are on the agenda for Friday’s commission meeting.