Unfamiliarity with the statue can be rectified with a few damning details: he was commissioned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (a group noted for also sponsoring several Klan memorials across the South), carried a rifle (though his cartridge box is “full of blanks,” a lazy attempt to suggest that the memorial lacks associations with violence), and faced North, toward the old Union. Julian Carr, a former Confederate cavalryman and benefactor to UNC-Chapel Hill, gave the dedication speech at the statue’s unveiling in 1913. He credited the Confederacy with having “saved the very life of the Anglo-Saxon race in the South,” while fondly recalling “hav(ing) horse-whipped a Negro wench until her skirt hung in shreds” not a hundred feet from where Sam was installed. Carr was an unrepentant white supremacist, a man obsessed by imagined racial superiority and haunted by the defeat at Appomattox. Naturally, he ended up with a town named after him.
By the time I matriculated to UNC, groups like the Real Silent Sam Coalition, led by students of color, had been working since the 1960s to remove the statue. Traditional avenues had failed them; for decades, peaceful protests had been met with silence by university officials. In 2015, several cities across the South took down all Confederate monuments following the mass shooting by a white supremacist in Charleston. Yet North Carolina took the opposite approach: the legislature passed restrictive measures all but eliminating a legal way to remove Confederate memorials in the name of “preserving history.”
As a junior, I set off for the library one Saturday morning to find the quad where Sam resided swarming with white supremacists. There they were, in the flesh, waving neo-Nazi paraphernalia and the Confederate battle flag. Seeing a swastika fluttering in the wind felt like a cruel joke—I was on my way to write a paper for my Jewish studies course, the books heavy in my hands. I tasted metal in my mouth, and yet still felt the privilege of my skin color protecting me as an onlooker. The thought drifted across my mind: would any of my relatives who escaped Nazi-occupied Europe have believed I’d have to see with my own eyes that flag waved again in hatred?
The hand-wringing of the administration was pathetic: “It’s a public university,” emails assured the student body, “everyone has a right to free speech, we can’t tell them not to come.” They may not have the authority to prevent them from assembling, we cried, but for god’s sake why leave up a monument to white supremacy for them to rally around?
It was not uncommon to pass the statue spray-painted—BLACK LIVES MATTER, WHO WAS SANDRA BLAND?—each time the words washed away by grounds-keeping staff before noon. After Charlottesville, students held a nine-day sit-in, with in the intent of remaining as occupiers around the statue until Sam was removed. A Shabbat service was held on the Friday evening of the sit-in, the kiddush focused on the commandment to tear down false idols (read Sandra Korn’s excellent piece on the event here).
On the ninth day, the encampment was raided by campus police, once again proving that it didn’t matter how peacefully protesters went about exercising their right to dissent. For nearly two years, Maya Little, a graduate student in history, handed out fliers, chanted, sat in, made signs, and asked for signatures on petitions to try and peacefully sway UNC to reckon with realities of Silent Sam. This past May, she “seemed to run out of words, and turn to gesture,” as the Raleigh News and Observer noted, “Nearly as mute as the bronze likeness of Silent Sam himself, Little opened bottles of red ink and, mixing in a bit of her own blood, stained the gray Mount Airy granite base of the controversial statue crimson red.” She was, she correctly argued, giving Sam the context he lacked.
I cannot speak to what it is like to pass statues like Silent Sam, day in and day out, as a person of color (many people have done so: read them here, here, and here). I can, however, speak to my fellow white people shedding crocodile tears in the name of historical preservation, as a Jewish student of history. The differences between never forgetting and glorifying are wide and deep and obvious. There is no danger of the memory of the Confederacy fading so long as people remain ensnared by the systems of white supremacy it championed. It is painful to watch apologists invoke the memory of the Holocaust and argue that while Auschwitz remains standing, Silent Sam must be given a pedestal.
And then there are those who claim to merely fear mob rule, who wring their hands over the methods by which people oppressed choose to shed their restraints. It is worth remembering that legal has never been synonymous with just. The law exists as a function of the state, an extension wielded to meet the needs of the powerful. At a Seder I attended while at UNC, the Haggadah in use speculated that the plagues were mitzvahs, acts of God meant to force the hand of the Pharaoh when he refused to let His people go. Even after the onslaught of plagues, Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his soldiers after those fleeing, chasing the Jewish people to the edge of the Red Sea. Some depictions of the event show the sea widely opening for God’s people to walk through, the waters only coming back together to swallow the Egyptian soldiers. I have always preferred the interpretation, however, which speculates that the sea did not part immediately; that the first Jews to reach the sea instead walked in expecting to drown as free people rather than remain enslaved. They surrendered themselves to faith, to the hope that things would right themselves toward justice because they had the chutzpah to act.
In an interview with the Daily Tar Heel, the UNC campus paper, Dwayne Dixon, an Asian studies professor at UNC, compared the moment Sam fell to an Old Testament story: “I watched it groan and shiver and come asunder…I mean, it feels biblical. It’s thundering and starting to rain. It’s almost like heaven is trying to wash away the soiled contaminated remains.” Charges have been filed against some protesters, but they did the right thing. The sea must part for the people who had the courage to swing the rope that pulled Sam into the dirt.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.