With the exception of the flag in Union, this applies to both Gaston County, my ancestral homeland, and Union County, my current home — Walter Bickett gave the same dedicatory speech in each. It is more generally applicable in other places.
To those who bear the responsibility of deciding the fate of Confederate monuments:
You likely never expected to find yourself in the midst of an unprecedented national reckoning on race when you accepted your office. We are grateful for the service and sacrifice you have made for all of us already, and for what you will do in the future. You may be struggling, conflicted between your upbringing, the assumptions that have sustained you so far, and the appeals of the movement afoot in our land. No one blames you for this. You are not a bad person because you have those feelings. You are a human being, and the point of the whole movement is greater respect and understanding for all people, you included.
In my long life, I have probably worked through all of those feelings. I was a Monroe Rebel and devotee of the Lost Cause. I was a history teacher who thought the causes of the war were complicated and could be separated from slavery. I was a local historian who finally realized that the flag could not stay but tried to pretzel myself into rationalizing a remaining monument scrubbed of that symbol. Yes, I was going to suggest literally erasing history. No longer. Now I am a grandfather with an African-American grandson. I am an author whose own life was transformed by the black and white characters in my book. I am happy to be, simply, a human being, seeing all the fantastic colors of the world and loving them.
I would like to offer some food for thought as you make this choice for our community, some perspective to help you view it in the light of your public role.
1. No one is questioning what the monument means to you. If someone who agrees with me about the relocation tries to make this personal, I would be happy to set them straight. Dialogue is mediated by the world — people are working on some piece of the world together, not on each other. In this case, the subject is the monument. No one is asking you to change your private opinion. That’s your business. Nobody should blame you for being proud your great-great-grandfather was in one of the troops listed there. My great-great-grandfather was Capt. William Independence Stowe of Gaston County. I do not judge him, your ancestor, or you. I respect your private life as well as your public role.
2. Your private opinion is not grounds for this public decision. You are not expected to move or keep the monument because of what it means to you, just as no one is asking you to change what it means to you. I am not asking you to move it because of what it means to me. This is not a clash of wills. I am asking you to move it because of what it means, in history and in the public record. We know, in general, that these monuments were erected around the turn of the 20th century to advance a radically revised understanding of what I was brought up to call the War of Northern Aggression precisely because that project flourished. But unlike other places, we do not have to connect dots. Thanks to the local newspaper, we have absolute clarity. Attorney General Walter Bickett’s dedicatory speech spells out what the monument aims to love and honor:
“On the smouldering ruins of a hallowed past, the Southern man, upheld by the love of a Southern woman, began to build anew. Together, they wrought out the grandest chapter in American history. Though they had been overpowered, they refused to be degraded. Though cast down, they refused to be destroyed. They swore they would not touch pitch, and that pitch should not touch them. They defied the bayonets and laughed at statutes. Immutable as the rocks and glorious as the stars they stood for a white civilization and a white race, and today North Carolina holds in trust for the safety of the nation the purest Anglo-Saxon blood to be found on the American shores. And the nation is beginning to realize how well you served it when, in the hour of utter desolation, you refused to be defiled.”
This monument was erected to celebrate the overthrow of Reconstruction and the restoration of white supremacy. (Notice that the causes of the war itself are beside the point and need not concern us.) This public reason is the legitimate basis for fulfilling your public responsibility for what stands on our public square.
3. Your decision is about this monument in this place. There is no slippery slope here. It makes no difference what overzealous protestors have done to monuments to Washington, Grant, Frederick Douglass, or Christopher Columbus in other places, or may do in the future. You are not responsible for that. Neither am I. The only question before you is: Should we keep this known monument to white supremacy on our public square, or not?
4. You serve a different public. When the monument was erected, only white males 21 and older could vote. The Fifteenth Amendment, which Bickett hated, had been voided by Grandfather Clause state constitutional amendments that disenfranchised black men. (They were overturned by the Supreme Court in 1915.) It would be years before women won the ballot. Still in my childhood, the definition of “adult person” was “free, white, and 21.” The public square ought always to have welcomed every citizen and person, the whole public, but it didn’t. It still doesn’t. But it will when these relics of the past are relocated to a more appropriate place for preservation and education. You, like public officials from dozens of county courthouses to statehouses and city streets, can be remembered for clearing the way to a more perfect union and a more just future.