Five years after the Unite the Right, NC protesters have confronted the Confederacy

·3 min read
Casey Toth/

Five years ago, hundreds of white supremacists showed up in Charlottesville, Virginia to rally around a statue of Robert E. Lee and announce their presence — no white hoods required. The Unite the Right rally took place over two days and resulted in the death of 32-year-old counterprotester Heather Hayer.

Two days after Unite the Right, Durham residents took the fight against white supremacy into their own hands and pulled down the Confederate soldier that had been in front of the old county courthouse. It was a swift toppling: the statue crumbled the second it hit the concrete. Almost exactly a year later, protesters tore down “Silent Sam,” the Confederate monument UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus, one that had been an issue since it went up. In 2020, protesters pulled down Confederate monuments at the state capitol.

Unite the Right was the first time many people had to confront our reality in the south: that white supremacy is alive and well, and the Confederate monuments we put in place last century are rallying points for these groups. In North Carolina, protesters were immediately ready to act. It took a while, however, for governments to catch up.

After the 2015 white supremacist mass shooting at a Black church in Charleston, SC, then-NC Gov. Pat McCrory signed a law into effect that prohibited the removal or alteration of any monument or marker owned by the state. For years, people in power abided by these rules. The protesters in Durham didn’t.

After the Durham statue came down, the protesters were quickly condemned by people in power. Gov. Roy Cooper tweeted at the time that “the racism and deadly violence in Charlottesville is unacceptable but there is a better way to remove these monuments.” Of the ten people charged with removing the monument, nine had their charges dismissed and one was acquitted.

Three years later, town councils and county commissions finally got on board and started removing their own statues; 28 Confederate monuments were removed in North Carolina after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. The 2015 law is still in effect; some of these monuments were privately owned, like the monument dedicated to Josephus Daniels, a white supremacist and the former publisher of The News & Observer.

Charlottesville is melting down the statue of Robert E. Lee that white supremacists rallied around five years ago, opting to donate it to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. It will be turned into a public art installation that was overseen by the group of people these statues wanted to silence.

North Carolina’s Confederate monuments are almost all in storage, including Durham’s. One statue in Lexington was re-dedicated in September 2021. Pitt County Commissioners voted to relocate the Greenville monument in February 2021 but backtracked after public backlash. Sampson County’s monument, which was removed from its base by protesters, now sits in the county museum’s exhibit on military history.

Technically, the universities, cities, and counties can’t even remove these monuments without the OK of the North Carolina Historical Commission, which has met only four times in 2022. Since the 2015 law went into effect, the commission has transformed into a board of almost entirely Cooper appointees — but most of these statues still sit in storage, awaiting their sentencing.

Having them out of sight is better than some options that have been thrown around, like giving the Sons of Confederate Veterans millions of dollars to protect the statue or moving them to historically black cemeteries. But what would be best for us as a state would be to follow Charlottesville’s lead, and give these reminders of slavery and Jim Crow to the community they were looking to silence.