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New lawsuit filed as groups press to remove NC Confederate monuments

Posted November 12, 2020 1:56 p.m. EST
Updated November 12, 2020 2:35 p.m. EST

— The NAACP sued Gaston County on Thursday, calling on a North Carolina judge to order the removal of a Confederate monument outside the county courthouse in a case the group's legal teams hopes can be replicated around the state.

The lawsuit builds on arguments a group of attorneys made earlier this year in pressing Gov. Roy Cooper to remove monuments from the State Capitol grounds, shortly before protesters tore some of them down and the state removed others in response.

The suit argues that monuments in prominent public spaces violate the rights of Black citizens and that, by referring to Confederate soldiers as "heroes," the Gaston County monument in particular violates an edict in the North Carolina constitution to support the Union.

Hampton Dellinger, one of several attorneys on the Gaston County suit, said it may prove a "bellwether case for seeking the removal of Confederate monuments across North Carolina."

"They are divisive and costly symbols causing real pain and real problems," Dellinger said in an email. "Elected officials have had more than enough time to end these controversies. Today, we are asking the courts to do so,"

Gaston County declined comment on the case, with a spokesman saying the county government doesn't discuss pending litigation.

The case was filed Thursday in Gaston County Superior Court. The local branch of the NAACP is joined in the case by a chapter of the Black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha and the Gaston County chapter of the National Association of Black Veterans. There are also three local residents on the suit: One white, one Black and one Hispanic.

Known as the "Confederate Heroes Monument," the 35-foot structure was dedicated in 1912, and the keynote speaker “used the occasion to praise white supremacy” and “criticize the right of Black men to vote," according to the Gaston Gazette, which is quoted in the lawsuit.

It was moved in front of a newly built courthouse in the 1990s, the suit states.

County commissioners planned earlier this year to move the monument, transferring ownership to the Sons of Confederate Veterans so it could be placed on private property. That fell apart when the SCV reneged on the transfer plan, the lawsuit states, and the Board of Commissioners subsequently voted to keep the monument in place.

The lawsuit argues that the monument's prominent place is a public safety hazard, noting the county spent more than $50,000 recently to protect it. Because it is a public safety issue, it's permissible to move it despite a 2015 state law passed to protect Confederate monuments from removal, the suit states.

The county attorney has publicly backed this interpretation, though he has also acknowledged other attorneys don't see it that way.

The lawsuit makes a number of legal arguments, including that the monument violates a constitutional guarantee of equal treatment under the law.

“Gaston County’s Confederate monument is not just a symbol of past and present discrimination but an instrument of it," the suit states. "Every juror who enters the Gaston County courthouse must view a governmental embrace of white supremacy before trying to provide impartial justice."

The suit also argues that the monument violates an anti-secession clause in the state constitution, which says any attempt to dissolve the United States "shall be resisted with the whole power of the state." The lawsuit notes that "Confederate heroes" is inscribed at the base.

"By literally proclaiming that those who fought for secession and sought to subvert the government of the United States are 'heroes,' Gaston County’s Confederate monument cannot be squared with these (constitutional) dictates," the suit states.

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