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Legislative leaders warn Cooper, commission on Confederate statue removal

Posted September 21, 2017 4:21 p.m. EDT
Updated September 22, 2017 10:10 a.m. EDT

— Legislative leaders on Thursday fired shots across the bow of Gov. Roy Cooper and the state Historical Commission in the ongoing battle over Confederate monuments on public grounds in North Carolina.

The commission is set to meet Friday morning to take up a request from Cooper's administration to move three Confederate monuments from outside the State Capitol to a Civil War battlefield site in Johnston County.

Monuments have become a flashpoint since a violent clash between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va., over the removal of a statue to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

A handful of protesters were arrested after pulling down a Confederate monument outside the Durham County Courthouse, and the "Silent Sam" statue on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus has become a focal point for student protests and created a wedge between UNC administrators and the Board of Governors that oversees the 17-campus system.

The state Department of Administration two weeks ago asked that the 1895 Confederate Monument, the Henry Lawson Wyatt Monument and the North Carolina Women of the Confederacy Monument be moved from the Capitol to the Bentonville Battlefield historic site, citing the need "to ensure the monuments' preservation."

A state law passed in 2015 to protect Confederate monuments and other "objects of remembrance" puts the decision in the hands of the Historical Commission, but the panel's discretion is limited.

The law says state-owned monuments or works of art can be relocated only "when appropriate measures are required by the state" to preserve them or when removal is needed to make room for construction.

In a Thursday memo from two dozen House Republicans, including Speaker Tim Moore, to commission members, lawmakers stated that "preservation" should be narrowly interpreted, and they cited moving the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse back from the encroaching ocean as an example of a permissible move.

"This provision in no way applies to the relocation of an object of remembrance to reduce its potential for exposure to protest or criminal activity. Any such interpretation of the statute or variant thereof is wholly inconsistent with the spirit and letter of the law," the lawmakers wrote in the memo.

A provision in the law allows for moving a monument that "poses a threat to public safety because of an unsafe or dangerous condition," but the lawmakers noted that refers only to the physical condition of the monument itself.

They also said moving the statues from Wake to Johnston County would violate the law, which states that any monument that is moved be shifted to "a site of similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability, and access that are within the boundaries of the jurisdiction from which it was relocated."

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger was more pointed in his criticism of the plan, telling Cooper in a letter that the request to move the three monuments "smacks of insincerity."

Berger questioned why Cooper focused on those monuments while leaving place statues of former Govs. Charles Aycock and Zebulon Vance and former President Andrew Jackson. Aycock was a white supremacist, Vance was a Confederate colonel and Jackson forcibly removed Cherokees from North Carolina.

"[W]ith natural disasters threatening the East Coast, the people of Southeastern North Carolina fearful about the safety of their drinking water and opportunities for major job recruitment, I am disturbed that sowing political discord is your primary focus," he wrote in the letter. "So, please reconsider your priorities, Governor, and withdraw your request."

Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said the DOA's request to move the monuments is only "to start this process."

"Governor Cooper has said that, while our state’s Civil War history is important, it belongs in museums, historical sites and textbooks and not in a place of allegiance on the Capitol grounds," Porter said in an email.