Raleigh, N.C. — A bill that proponents said would keep "flames of passion" from consuming the state's history itself stirred passions as members of the House tentatively approved a measure to preserve public "objects of remembrance," including memorials on public property to the Confederate cause.
Senate Bill 22 effectively forbids the permanent removal of any "monument, memorial, plaque, statue, marker, or display of a permanent character that commemorates an event, a person, or military service that is part of North Carolina's history" on public property unless the legislature passes a law to allow for the removal.
The measure cleared the state Senate 48-0 in April, months before the Charleston, S.C., church shooting that killed nine and led to a national debate over the symbolism behind the Confederate battle flag and the veneration of the rebel cause. That conversation has pitted those who say Southerners should be able to hold on to their heritage against those who say Confederate memorials lionize a cause that championed slavery and whose symbols have been adopted by racists.
In North Carolina, the conversation has flashed around such memorials as "Silent Sam," a statue of a Confederate soldier on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's campus.
The House voted 70-37 on preliminary approval of the bill. A final debate and vote is scheduled for Tuesday. If the bill clears a second vote, an all-but-foregone conclusion, it will go to Gov. Pat McCrory.
"At a minimum tonight, we are ill-timed in passing this bill, and some may say we're tone deaf," said Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, saying the original intent of the legislation to preserve memorials around the state from hasty removal or destruction was good.
But in the context of current events, he and others said, it would be viewed as a sop to those who want to preserve symbols viewed as hateful by others.
"The whole purpose of the bill is to keep the flames of passion form overriding common sense," said Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven.
Debate over reach
Speciale and other backers of the bill turned back two amendments aimed at giving cities and counties flexibility to remove memorials and other objects of remembrance from local government property, calling them unnecessary.
"The bill refers to state-owned monuments and memorials," Speciale said. "The state needs to have the last word on these monuments, not the counties, not the cities."
But Glazier and other opponents argued that the bill effectively takes over all public memorials, whether erected by the state, a city or a local sanitation district.
"The bill itself gives me a great deal of heartburn simply because you're taking (away) local control over what's in that city or county with statues and memorials they've erected on their own property," said Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham.
Glazier argued that the definitions in the bill, including what constitutes an "object of remembrance" are so vague as to invite lawsuits.
"I think only lawyers are going to enjoy this bill, because they're going to get some employment out of it," he said.
Other lawmakers said that the definitions are clear enough and that the state has the right to step in on such local matters.
"Cities and counties are subdivisions of the state, and the state can play with their property if they feel like it," Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, said.
Honoring the Confederacy
Most of Monday night's debate focused less on the reach of the bill than the type of monuments likely to be protected by the measure.
"I would urge members to pause and just think about the optics of this bill as it relates to where we are right now in what's going on in North Carolina and America," Rep. Kelly Alexander, D-Mecklenburg, said.
Alexander's comments were typical of the evening's debate – restrained by a concerted effort by both sides to remain respectful. However, a comment by Cleveland did provoke sharp pushback by black lawmakers.
"I think the bill is designed to make sure that folks that did things in the past, whether we view them as right or wrong today, their honor is protected," Cleveland said. "A Civil War hero deserves the same considerations as a World War I hero or a World War II hero, and I think, in many cases, folks would like to see those memorials to our past go away. I don't think that's the right thing to do for our history. You may not like what you're looking at, you may not agree with what you're looking at, but in our country, the right for it to be there exists."
Rep. Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford, said that Cleveland's comparison of Confederate soldiers to those who freed concentration camps from Nazi Germany was flawed.
"They were on the wrong side of history," Brockman said of soldiers who fought for the Confederacy. "They were traitors to this country, and they don't deserve the same respect. They don't have my respect."
That prompted Rep. John Bell, R-Wayne, to raise a point of order against Brockman, saying that he wasn't obeying rules of debate that require respect and decorum.
House Speaker Tim Moore admonished Brockman, who continued to blast away at the bill.
"Defending Confederate monuments, in my opinion, is not something we should do, and it's something that's offensive to me and offensive to a lot of other people," he said.