On First Day of Class, a Massive Rally Against Silent Sam

Silent Sam protest

Law enforcement officers protect Silent Sam as protesters surround the controversial memorial. (News & Observer photo by Chuck Liddy)

Hundreds of people rallied around the University’s Confederate statue Tuesday night — not to support the 114-year-old Silent Sam but to try to get rid of him.

Carolina has been working this week toward a similar outcome: “If we had the ability to immediately move the statue in the interest of public safety, we would,” Chancellor Carol L. Folt told the campus community on Monday. On Tuesday, another South Building message said that “we continue to believe that removing the Confederate Monument is in the best interest of the safety of our campus.”

In the wake of the violent rally in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12 and the reaction to it, Confederate monuments are being removed in many parts of the country. And Silent Sam — which represents UNC students and alumni who died in the Civil War — has had his share of detractors over the years.

The situation is complicated by a law enacted by the N.C. General Assembly in 2015 that prohibits the removal or relocation of publicly sited monuments without the permission of the N.C. Historical Commission.

After receiving a letter this week from the University and UNC System officials warning of the possibility of “significant safety and security threats,” Gov. Roy Cooper ’79 (’82 JD) said University officials were within their right to remove the statue if they perceived an immediate threat.

University officials see the law differently: “Despite how it is being interpreted in the media,” a UNC statement read, “the University has not been given the clear legal authority to act unilaterally. Governor Cooper cites a provision where removal would be permitted if a ‘building inspector’ concludes that physical disrepair of a statue threatens public safety, a situation not present here. The University is now caught between conflicting legal interpretations of the statute from the Governor and other legal experts.”

It went on to say that “the University can act only in accordance with the laws of the state of North Carolina. 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. Your safety and the safety of our community will always be our first priority.”

The scene on the evening of the first day of fall classes — amid a large presence of helmeted police and outside a double ring of steel barriers erected around the statue that afternoon — appeared chaotic at times, but no injuries were reported. Media outlets reported that an estimated 800 people were present. Three people were arrested, one of whom is a Carolina student.

Some of those present supported continuing to let Silent Sam stand as a monument to the Civil War dead, but the majority by far opposed retaining the statue, shouting, “Tear it down, tear it down.” Angry individual confrontations were spotted, but there were no immediate reports of an organized presence of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which was a force at the Charlottesville rally.

One student at the rally said that when she walks through McCorkle Place at her graduation next May, “It’s not going to be in my way.”

Some in the crowd moved into Franklin Street and caused it to be closed, and some went as far east as the UNC System president’s house. There were scuffles between police and protesters who appeared to be trying to get beyond the barricades. Several protesters temporarily blocked the path of a police vehicle carrying one of those arrested, pounding on the hood and shouting.

Some participants decried the heavy protection around Silent Sam, one of them remarking that “Silent Sam is more protected than any student at this university.”

UNC’s message had encouraged people to stay away from the rally. It added: “If you are not attending this event, please avoid McCorkle Place and the area around the Confederate Monument,” and Folt had noted that the rally was “being promoted by groups not affiliated with Carolina.”

In the fourth hour of the rally, which started at 7 p.m., there still was a substantial crowd, though the mood was calmer.

Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger has called for removal of Silent Sam.

As of Tuesday, Confederate monuments had been removed in about 20 U.S. cities, and proposals for removal had been made in about 15 more. Duke University — which as a private institution is not affected by the N.C. law against removal — last weekend took down a statue of Robert E. Lee, which had stood in the front entrance to Duke Chapel, after the statue was vandalized. Also last weekend, the University of Texas took down three Confederate monuments.

The Chronicle for Higher Education had counted about 10 Confederate statutes that recently had been removed or moved to different locations on campuses nationwide.


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