by Emily H.A. Yen, Trinity College
The violent death of Heather Heyer at the Unite the Right rally lead by torch-carrying White nationalists protesting the proposed removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia shifted the national discourse around White supremacy and the public display of Confederate monuments. Confederate monuments are particularly controversial since the vast majority of them were built after the Supreme Court upheld the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision (Southern Poverty Law Center 2019) and were a way for White southerners to venerate an alternative narrative of the origins of the Civil War and assert racial dominance in the Jim Crow South. The United Daughters of the Confederacy’s fundraising of the 8-foot bronze statue on University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s (UNC) campus and its dedication by Julian Carr, a UNC Trustee and Confederate veteran who supported the Ku Klux Klan, in 1913 reflects this larger movement (Farzan 2018). The statue known as “Silent Sam” has been a focal point of recent campus debates around racial justice, White supremacy, and free speech, but generations of UNC students have been protesting its presence on campus for over 50 years. The most recent wave of student activism led to the statue’s physical toppling in August 2018 and spurred an ongoing debate around the preservation of its symbolic legacy.
In August 2011, a group of undergraduate students along with members of the local community formed the Real Silent Sam Coalition “to create honest public dialogue and provoke critical thought surrounding the monuments and buildings in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.” There was a significant amount of public debate around the monument’s 100th anniversary in 2013 but the UNC administration didn’t make any significant institutional changes. Political backlash in July 2015 led to North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signing a bill that prohibited towns, universities, and other public agencies from moving or removing “objects of remembrance” without permission from the North Carolina Legislature. A few months later, a group of Black students presented a list of demands to the UNC administration, UNC system, and North Carolina General Assembly which included “the removal of the racist Confederate monument Silent Sam and ALL confederate monuments on campuses in the UNC-System” (A Collective of Students Who are Combating Anti-Blackness on This Campus 2015).
The movement to remove the monument gained momentum after Charlottesville. Groups of students distributed flyers about the monument at football games in the fall of 2017. Graduate student academic employees formed the Workers Union at UNC, a chapter of UE 150, in the fall of 2017. UE 150 formed from lawsuit brought by UNC’s housekeeping staff in the 1990s. There was collaboration between these movements. In the Spring of 2018, the coalition partnered with union members and distributed flyers on campus about the monument every Thursday in the spring 2018 semester. Maya Little, a doctoral student in the history department, poured a mixture of red ink and her own blood on the statue as an act of protest at a rally on April 30, 2018.
On August 20, 2018, the evening before the first day of classes of the fall semester, a large crowd gathered off-campus at Chapel Hill’s Peace and Justice Plaza for a rally called “Until They All Fall.” The rally was in protest the presence of the monument and in support of Maya Little, who was heading to trial for the April 30th action. After speeches by Little and other activists, the rally moved on-campus toward the statue. The crowd surrounded the monument with tall banners and pulled the statue from its base.
After the statue’s toppling, the UNC administration developed a proposal to re-erect the statue and house it in a new $5.3 million history center on campus. Hundreds of students objected to the continued commemoration of symbols of white supremacy as well as the proposed development of a mobile police forced that would be deployed across the UNC System during student protests. Students protested the proposal at a rally in December 2018. As an act of solidarity, approximately 100 graduate student teaching assistants withheld grades at the end of the fall semester. This action gained national attention, and the UNC system Board of Governors rejected the proposal along with a proposal for a mobile police force to quell student protests on December 14, 2018 (Harris 2018). Shortly afterwards, UNC Chancellor Carol Folt announced her resignation, and the administration also cancelled a $60 fee hike for graduate students set to take place in the spring of 2019. While it remains unclear what the Board of Governors at UNC will adopt as an alternative proposal this spring, collective action is shaping it.
A Collective of Students Who are Combating Anti-Blackness on This Campus. 2015. “A Collective Response to Anti-Blackness.”
Farzan, Antonia Noori. 2018. “‘Silent Sam’: A Racist Jim Crow-Era Speech Inspired UNC Students to Topple a Confederate Monument on Campus. The Washington Post. August 21. Retrieved online April 22, 2019: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/08/21/silent-sam-a-racist-jim-crow-era-speech-inspired-unc-students-to-topple-a-confederate-monument-on-campus/
Harris, Adam. 2018. “UNC Punts on Silent Sam.” The Atlantic. December 14. Retrieved online April 22, 2019: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/12/uncs-board-governors-punts-silent-sam/578224/
Southern Poverty Law Center. 2019. “Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy.” Retrieved online April 22, 2019: https://www.splcenter.org/20190201/whose-heritage-public-symbols-confederacy