Silent Sam came down Monday night in Chapel Hill, long after he should have and no thanks to the people who should have done it. And when it finally happened, when the statue was toppled and students sang and social media celebrated, the adults in the room stepped forward to remind us why this had taken so long.
University of North Carolina officials were first, hiding behind a nameless statement sent out late Monday. Did that statement acknowledge how the 1913 statue had long been a source of pain on campus, how Silent Sam’s tribute to anonymous Confederate soldiers had long been overtaken by the statue’s deeply racist roots? No. UNC officials instead wagged their finger like parents. “Tonight’s actions were dangerous,” the statement said, “and we are very fortunate no one was injured.”
Chancellor Carol Folt later acknowledged the statue was a “source of frustration” for many, and N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper’s office offered its own tsk tsk, saying that he “understands that many people are frustrated by the pace of change and he shares their frustration, but violent destruction of public property has no place in our communities.”
Ah, the “pace of change.” We know about this. It’s a story that’s been told countless times throughout our history, and though Monday’s events don’t carry anything close to the import of events a half-century ago throughout the South, there certainly were notes that rang familiar.
Back then, it was quiet whites who knew things needed to change regarding civil rights, yet didn’t think change should happen that way. But none of those well-meaning whites could quite say how progress might actually come, and none could say exactly when the good people of Alabama and Mississippi might finally decide to give black people their dignity and the right to vote. So it was up to others to give change a nudge, and more. That’s the way it so often works. That’s the way it worked Monday in Chapel Hill.
And no, we don’t believe that vandalism is a path to meaningful progress. But if someone had in fact been hurt when Silent Sam fell to the ground, at least some of the responsibility would have been borne by a legislature that passed a law protecting the statue, and by those who dragged their feet on demanding change, and who in their inaction were making a choice, anyway. We suspect that those same officials, including our governor, might be a bit relieved that Silent Sam finally fell to the ground, and that they could say all the responsible things that folks like to hear.
What matters more this morning — to UNC students and others — is that Silent Sam is down. One more monument to racism gone. One more reminder that instead of waiting for change, sometimes you have to pull it toward you.