A student law group at the University of North Carolina is threatening to sue school officials if they don’t take down a controversial Confederate statue.
The statue, known as Silent Sam, stands prominently on the campus’s main quad, where students have hosted near-daily protests and occasionally clashed with counter-protesters and law enforcement.
Writing on behalf of the Black Law Student Association and other students, attorney Hampton Dellinger argued in a letter sent Wednesday to university chancellor Carol Folt and UNC system president Margaret Spellings that allowing the statue to remain standing violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“Silent Sam should go for many reasons including its incompatibility with the ‘inclusive and welcoming environment’ promised by UNC’s non-discrimination policy,” Dellinger wrote. “We are providing legal notice of an additional reason why Silent Sam must come down now: the statue violates federal anti-discrimination laws by fostering a racially hostile learning environment.”
Dellinger said the students plan to file complaints with the Department of Education and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, according to Raleigh’s News and Observer.
The Silent Sam statue was erected in 1913 as a monument to UNC students who joined the Confederate army in the Civil War. At its dedication ceremony, former Confederate private Julian Carr said of the soldiers, “their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South.”
The statue has been the source of controversy on UNC’s campus for decades, but came under renewed scrutiny following the violent unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month, when white-supremacist and Neo-Nazi groups descended on the town to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. They were met by counter-protesters, and the ensuing clashes left one counter-protester and two police officers dead.
“It is no wonder that Silent Sam remains a rallying cry, and a gathering place, for white supremacists today,” Dellinger wrote in his letter. “More than a century later, Silent Sam still speaks loudly.”
A political firestorm
UNC’s Folt and the university’s Board of Governors have come under fire for their handling of the Silent Sam issue.
Last month, Folt received written permission from North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, to take down the statue if they felt it presented “a real risk to public safety.” He cited a state law passed in 2015 that made it more difficult to remove Confederate monuments, but also included an exception when a monument “poses a threat to public safety because of an unsafe or dangerous condition.”
However, despite the apparent go-ahead, the university challenged Cooper’s interpretation of the statute the next day, arguing that the “dangerous condition” exception refers only to a monument’s physical disrepair.
“We continue to believe that removing the Confederate Monument is in the best interest of the safety of our campus, but the University can act only in accordance with the laws of the state of North Carolina,” the university said in a statement.
Critics accused Folt of bowing to pressure from the university’s overwhelmingly Republican board of governors, a 28-member panel that makes policy decisions for the UNC system. Others accused the board members of being “too beholden to the legislators that appointed them,” as the News and Observer put it.
“She understands that her salary is at risk if she takes a strong stance against white supremacy and hatred,” senior Michelle Brown, who helped organise a series of sit-ins to protest the statue, told Business Insider.
“We did see it as a time for them to be on the right side of history, to make the morally correct decision to take it down, but that wasn’t the case.”
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