Issue Statement on Confederate Monuments
Approved September 13, 2017 by the Governing Board of the North Carolina Council of Churches
The Governing Board of the N.C. Council of Churches, mindful of the tensions in our state and nation related to the display of monuments saluting the heritage of the Confederacy, adopts this statement of facts and principles:
A great public debate has flared regarding some of the South’s most familiar civic symbols – the monuments that for decades have sought to honor those men who fought and by the many thousands died in the Civil War.
- The debate springs from an inescapable truth: Monuments that have the effect of glorifying the South’s Lost Cause and of venerating those who were its defenders must be seen as sympathetic to, or at the least heedless of, the racial oppression that the Confederacy was dedicated to upholding.
- That oppression was rooted in the enslavement of black people. It had its further cruel chapters in the outrageous regime of racial segregation known as Jim Crow. African-Americans were deprived of their birthright under the Constitution to equality before the law as far too many Southerners refused to surrender their notions of white supremacy.
- It is no wonder that the monuments standing in so many of our public squares, in North Carolina and elsewhere, conjure up bitter memories of times that should not be forgotten, but in no way celebrated.
The N.C. Council of Churches represents diverse congregations totaling more than a million members. It had its genesis in 1935 as an organization dedicated to racial equality in keeping with Christian precepts of love for one another and care for the underprivileged. In that light, the Council’s Governing Board believes it is time to acknowledge the inherent offensiveness of monuments and memorials evoking the eras of slavery and racial discrimination whose ill effects remain all too visible.
- We call for a re-examination of the roles of civic images hearkening back to an era when racial injustice was our state’s official policy – a policy so deeply ingrained that torrents of blood were spilled to defend it and to defeat it.
- Unless the debate now rapidly intensifying yields a new, thoughtful consensus about these artifacts’ proper role in our civic landscape, there will be little chance to calm the currents of mistrust and resentment that increasingly divide us and that too often are exploited by unscrupulous politicians and power-brokers for their own ends.
The violence that has shadowed this debate – recently and prominently, in Charlottesville, where a person marching against racist bigotry was killed in an episode of domestic terrorism – is an intolerable affront to the civic order.
- Authorities must take all reasonable measures to prevent any more such violent episodes, and people of good will must unite in working to overcome disagreements peaceably – even when underlying problems are as vexing and hurtful as the legacy of racism.
In a state as large and diverse as North Carolina — where images of Confederate soldiers stand guard outside courthouses in rural county seats, amid cities bustling with high-tech enterprise and, yes, at our most significant public space, the state Capitol itself — a policy for the display of these monuments need not be one-size-fits-all.
- That’s the case even though there no longer can be a valid excuse when Confederate imagery is presented without accompanying historical context, and in more of a spirit of pride in Southern valor than in regret for the monstrous pain occasioned by the South’s rebellion.
- Session Law 2015-170, as enacted by the General Assembly, severely limits the authority of this state’s communities to make their own decisions about the further siting and display of monuments evoking North Carolina’s military history that now are located on public property.
- The Board finds these restrictions to be undemocratic, unnecessary and counterproductive. It therefore endorses Gov. Roy Cooper’s call for repeal of the law.
Decisions about the fate of monuments to the Confederate cause and to those who served that cause – when the monuments may have been woven into a community’s civic fabric for a century or more – should not be made in haste. But local officials should have sufficient flexibility to ensure that monuments within their purview do not serve as implicit endorsements of racial discrimination. They should have the leeway to reflect a community’s evolving understanding of the messages such monuments convey.
- Many Confederate-themed monuments were erected during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as white supremacy and Jim Crow segregation tightened their grip on African-American citizens. Even when the monuments’ overt purpose was to memorialize Confederate veterans then passing from the scene, they also became totems, whether or not deliberately, of the racial oppression bedeviling the South then and for years to come.
- There now is an upsurge of fervor among white supremacist groups intent on countering black citizens’ demands for further progress toward social equality. In some instances, such as in Charlottesville, those groups have made common cause with neo-Nazis. They see Confederate monuments as convenient symbols of their contempt for African-Americans and for others who seek to prevent this nation from sliding toward totalitarianism.
- The Board believes that when monuments such as the Charlottesville statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee are appropriated by today’s white racists to rally support or to try to ennoble their bigotry, we have a doubly compelling duty to reconsider the place of those images in the public landscape.
- That reconsideration should not be aimed at obliterating history. It should be aimed at enhancing public understanding of how the monuments came about – who sponsored and erected them, when, why and how.
Monuments given civic pride of place should reflect our most treasured values – and not those treasured by one segment of the public while loathed by another. They should be values at the foundation of our democracy – perhaps none so important as that all of us are created equal and are equally entitled to the privileges and protections of citizenship.
- Race discrimination is the very antithesis of that equality and lies at the root of many of our society’s ills. We must take care that our public symbols cannot be seen as glorifying it. The protesters who pulled down the statue of a Confederate soldier in Durham on Aug. 14, 2017 and others who have called for the removal of a similar statue on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are among those who see such glorification and reject it.
- This Board regrets the unlawful destruction of property as occurred in Durham. It is concerned as well that such incidents could escalate into violence in which people were hurt. The potential for public confrontation further underscores the urgent need for honest dialogue as to how North Carolina can move beyond the times when symbols of the Confederacy could be presented without explanation and without context.
The physical relocation of monuments – perhaps to museums or cemeteries – may in some instances be both practical and desirable. But whether or not they are moved, there must be deliberate efforts to better inform and educate regarding the history of these “objects of remembrance” and how they can be perceived. That could include explanatory signage, pamphlets for visitors, comprehensive online descriptions and school curricular materials developed to be both historically objective and accurate.
- Progress of this nature depends on the good-faith support of our political and civic leaders, hopefully responsive to the concerns of many citizens including those of us who speak from a faith perspective.
- Politicians who shirk this obligation out of a cynical pandering to supposed allies in league with white supremacists and neo-Nazis defile their oaths of office. The president of the United States has a special responsibility to rise above this kind of divisiveness.
Our society now seems increasingly stressed by animosities along fault lines of race and class. In keeping with the Council’s founding tenets, this Board recognizes the need to update and refine policies for the display of monuments that, for all their appeal within a certain sphere of traditional Southern culture, will serve only to widen those fault lines if allowed to stand without critical assessment or challenge.