More than 200 protesters toppled a controversial Confederate statue on the campus of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill on Monday. Video footage showed the crowd jeering and cheering as they brought down the 105-year-old statue known as “Silent Sam,” which students have long regarded as a symbol of white supremacy.
The group gathered around the bronze statue in the early evening, holding signs and chanting, “Stand up, fight back,” and, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, this racist statue has got to go.” Then they wrapped the statue in a banner that read, “For a world without white supremacy,” and tied rope around it before yanking the statue to the ground, according to video footage published on the local news website WRAL.com. Protesters shrieked and yelled in triumph, and a few protesters stomped on the bronze statue.
The moment ended a decades-long battle to remove the Confederate monument, which was erected in 1913 to honor the university alumni who fought in the Civil War, from UNC’s campus. It also marked a tense moment in a growing movement to remove Confederate monuments from public spaces in the South, based on their inherent support of slavery.
Tuesday’s actions were criticized by some who considered it the wrong way to express frustration over years of failed efforts to remove Silent Sam from campus.
The university’s chancellor, Carol Folt, acknowledged the divisiveness of Silent Sam’s presence on campus in a statement Tuesday but also described protesters’ actions as “unlawful and dangerous:”
It’s true, Silent Sam was erected as a symbol of white supremacy
The plaza where Silent Sam stood has been the center of dozens of protest over the years, dating back to the 1960s. Sam is not a real historical figure; he merely represents all the UNC students who fought in the Civil War. Supporters of the statue — and other Confederate monuments — said it is not a racist symbol, but a symbol honoring Southern heritage.
But for many, it’s impossible to separate the two, considering that a Ku Klux Klan supporter unveiled the statue back in 1913 and specifically mentioned its symbolic importance in preserving American whiteness.
The Daughters of the Confederacy, who erected the statue, had invited Julian Carr, a well-known industrialist and KKK supporter, to unveil the statue on campus, according to the Washington Post:
Carr’s lengthy address made clear the symbolism of the statue. First, he credited Confederate soldiers with saving “the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South,” adding, “to-day, as a consequence the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States — Praise God.”
Efforts to remove Confederate monuments are intensifying
Confederate flags and statues of Confederate soldiers are found in public spaces all over the US, mostly in Southern states. And researchers at the Southern Poverty Law Center keep discovering new ones: The group listed 1,740 Confederate monuments in its database in 2018 —that’s 237 more than they knew of in 2016. Despite the pervasiveness of Civil War shrines, some cities have started to remove them based on the controversy about the racist, violent history they represent.
Those efforts took off after a mass shooting in 2015, when a self-described white supremacist shot and killed nine people in a predominantly black church in Charleston, South Carolina, according to Vox’s German Lopez:
[The gunman] drew a lot of attention for posing with the Confederate flag in images that came out after the shooting — and that helped spur a fight within South Carolina about whether it should take down a Confederate flag that had flown at the state capitol for years. The state eventually agreed to officially take down the flag (after it was unofficially taken down by activist Bree Newsome).
Since then, several cities, including New Orleans, have taken down all their Confederate statues, sparking outrage from other Southern politicians. Charlottesville, Virginia, was preparing to tear down its own monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, triggering the now-infamous protests by neo-Nazis and white supremacists in 2017, which led to the death of counterprotester Heather Heyer.
That episode has only intensified efforts to remove Confederate monuments, including the statue of Silent Sam. And apparently, students there didn’t want to wait any longer for someone else to take it down.