The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has had the honor of educating students since its doors opened on January 15, 1795. However, recently it was the students instructing the renowned college when, during a protest, a statue depicting a Confederate soldier was torn to the ground.
The Confederate statue, known as Silent Sam, has long been regarded as an expression of hatred rather than an “object of remembrance,” a status which currently protects the removal of commemorated pieces displayed on public property in countless southeastern states. With Silent Sam pinned to the ground on Monday night, protesters have regained the lost momentum of the great question: should statues that are widely perceived to serve as symbols of racism be subject to removal? One rising senior at the school remarked on Twitter: “I started my first year off hiding in my dorm cus the police were escorting white supremacist rallying at Silent Sam,” quickly rejoicing that her senior year has felt the bookend of the problematic Silent Sam period.
How many people are going to be put in this position before these “remembrance” bills reverse all of the progress that has been made? An object of remembrance implies that there is some sort of aesthetic, moral, cultural or “X” value to be reminisced over. Confederate statues, however, weren’t created to communicate any of these. Any historical value it might have possessed will always be overshadowed by the fear society feels towards its intended meaning. In a world where prejudice and intolerance rarely see justice, these statues are possibly the only tangible way we can fight discrimination.
The grounds which enthrone Confederate statues across the United States are displaying a group of people that would look through the kaleidoscope of diverse college campuses today and cringe. The damage done in the past should never be ignored of course, but it certainly does not need to be paraded around or worse yet, worshipped, as it has been at Durham and Charlottesville, among other places. Universities may condemn the student protesters for their methodology, but who is to say their actions weren’t justified? These statues were built under obsolete and inhumane thinking, as is notable in Julian Carr’s speech at the unveiling of the UNC statue, which dictates that the confederate soldiers “saved the very life of the Anglo-Saxon race in the South.” Why is the destruction of public property considered a worse offense than the destruction of civil rights?
It is easy to antagonize the protesters, to look down on their potentially “unsafe” ways, but I urge you to sympathize with the people who have been overlooked or have witnessed others belittled because of this statue. It was against the law for the Silent Sam to be taken down and thus, the students made the decision, so the faculty wouldn’t have to. While these statues can never tangibly challenge anyone’s freedom, they are indirectly determining the atmosphere around us. They are molding and reassuring beliefs of superiority and discrimination. They are not art, and we are not an audience. When college campuses become complacent or fail to recognize a student’s moral obligation to protest, it should be further motivation to be among the first to seek change. And, if a university’s promise to be responsible and supportive of every student’s safety is genuine, then it must do everything in its power to fight against the racism and discrimination Silent Sam posed. It must do everything in its power to make its students, not its statues, feel protected.