After #Charlottesville – What kinds of Engagement on Statues and Symbols in Passionate Debate?

This entry was contributed by on August 18th, 2017 at 10:55 am and is filed under , , .
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White Supremacy.   Confederate Heritage.   Preserve or remove statues and memorials?

Many communities are facing passionate people and arguments about these monuments and their meaning. Some Confederate memorials have already been removed in recent days (Franklin, Ohio; Baltimore), including one in Durham toppled illegally. Other vandalism of memorials or statues have occurred in Arizona and at Duke University.

In North Carolina, Governor Roy Cooper and legislative leaders are chiming in.

What should be done – and HOW should it be done? This blog focuses on community engagement, so beyond the what to do is the how to go about deciding action or preservation of Confederate memorials. While these issues are attracting national attention, the choices are highly local or guided at the state level, per the 2015 NC General Assembly action on the preservation or relocation of statues and memorials.

Following the June 17, 2015 killing of nine people by Dylann Roof in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church  I wrote Conflicting Views on Confederate Flag, Memorials, Symbols:  What to do in a “Post-Charleston” Environment?  It appeared in the Fayetteville Observer as and op-ed, and I reprint that post below with some updates.

Blogger Michelle Bir also contributed in November 2015: Fayetteville History and City Symbols: the Weakness of Online Opinion

I am eager to hear viewpoints on the “how” of making good decisions in the wake of the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, counterprotest and violence. It seems one risk is attribution bias (or errors): assuming that if a person believes X then she or he must believe Y and Z (which are equally or more outrageous to the listener).

  1. What kinds of stakeholders should be included in these discussions?
  2. Can memorials stand for honoring slain soldiers yet not be symbols of 20th century terrorism and oppression of African-Americans?
  3. Is moving certain statues or memorials to military cemeteries, veterans park or history museums a “balanced” solution?
  4. If a city council or county commission chooses to consider these issues, what kinds of input will help their decision?

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Conflicting Views on Confederate Flag, Memorials, Symbols:  What to do in a “Post-Charleston” Environment?

More than a Flag:  How a community talks and decides

There are strong feelings and many ideas about what to do with Confederate flags and memorials in the aftermath of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church murders.  The Confederate battle flag and flagpole were removed from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds on July 10th, after emotional debate in the S.C. Legislature.

North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory believes the state should stop issuing Sons of Confederate Veterans car license plates which feature the Confederate battle flag [UPDATE: as of August 17, 2017, NC DMV lists Sons of Confederate Veterans as an available license plate]. One writer calls for taking down the NC Capitol Confederate Memorial. Some other local flashpoints have included the Salisbury Confederate Statue, the use of the Fayetteville Market House as a town symbol, and several reports of vandalism of Confederate statues and memorials. [UPDATE – Vandalism of the Robert E. Lee statue at Duke University, August 17, 2017].

Having the “Right Conversation”

While the Confederate flag is a potent symbol, an equally important way to express community values is to seek respect and understanding as a city or state decides what to do about local memorials and displays of the Confederate flag at government institutions.

I have worked with many N.C. local government leaders to address difficult issues on the environment, land use, public safety and community planning. From 1998-2006 I facilitated United Methodist Church groups across the U.S. as they struggled to stay together despite their differences on whether to ordain gay and lesbian ministers or to hold gay weddings in their churches.

It is unlikely for everyone in a community will be satisfied with a specific outcome about flag display or memorials. But seeking understanding amidst differences is a way to grow individual and community character and strengthen the invisible glue that holds communities together.

I offer these guidelines for city and county managers, elected leaders, cemetery committees and others who wish to have a proactive, strong way to engage people who care about these matters:

  1. Be sure to have input from different viewpoints as you plan the meeting or forum. Participants are more trusting when the announcement comes from people who share their view. It also is more likely for people to see the gathering as open and fair.
  2. Include small group conversations. Avoid the standard one speaker at a time model which often inflames the atmosphere. Aim for a “kitchen-table” style setting, where people talk and listen better by talking with rather than at one another.
  3. Set some clear rules for respect. Listening without interrupting, and summarizing someone’s views before offering your thoughts are good first steps. Another rule is to ask genuine questions: not courtroom cross-examination style, but out of true curiosity. There will be a lot of “how can you believe that?” coming from a feeling of exasperation or anger. The key is to turn down the temperature and let everyone say what they believe – and where they are uncertain – without being attacked.
  4. Try to get beyond either-or choices. Some people may only focus on removing or changing a particular flag display or memorial. Other steps could involve honoring community history not tied to war or Jim Crow discrimination, but to add memorials, markers or celebrations which enhance the history of a community.
  5. Avoid having a poll or use any group to represent the community as a whole. Separating the talk and deliberation about an emotional issue from the decision-making stage helps people focus on the substance rather than play to the audience or the board who controls the Confederate memorial or flag display.
  6. Be clear about who will decide, and the timeline for a decision. As part of planning a forum or set of conversations, be sure the decision-makers can observe the conversation, but it is probably best for them to not weigh in at that time.

Fortunately, civic leaders can call on various resources to be sure that many voices are heard, and that people are respected in the conversation. Community mediation centers and the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government have skilled facilitators. Local ministerial associations, and community relations commissions can be helpful, too.

Flags are potent symbols of history and identity. N.C. leaders – in and out of government – have the opportunity to express community values and shared identity by how the hot feelings about Confederate memorials and flags bend, but do not break, the bonds of civility and neighborliness. Part of wise leadership is creating ways that draw people together ahead of a tough decision.



6 Responses to “After #Charlottesville – What kinds of Engagement on Statues and Symbols in Passionate Debate?”

  1. John Stephens

    Some views about why to keep and preserve Confederate history:
    Sen. Gerald Allen of Tuscaloosa, Alabama:
    “You cannot tell the complete story of the civil rights movement if you whitewash or pretend that that part of history didn’t exist,” Allen said of efforts to remove Confederate memorials.
    Full story:

  2. Beth McKee-Huger

    When passions are too inflamed to wait for the whole range of stakeholders to be willing to get in one room at one time, people take action. Delaying justice until consensus means it will not happen. Those who want to keep things the way they have always been do not usually move until they have to, those who are being held back by the past need change sooner than that. Much of the outrage in the past week has been about how slow the president has been to publicly denounce the violence of white supremacists. Putting off response in order to be even-handed doesn’t always work.

    But the actions we take as catalysts for change must be non-violent. Injuring the people on the other side of our passions only makes both sides morally equivalent. To me, damaging things may be necessary—Jesus probably did serious damage to those tables he overturned in the temple when he disrupted the symbols of greed—but attacking people is not justified.

    As peacemakers, we may need to stand between people using violence to preserve their privileges and people responding violently to tear down injustices. By placing ourselves as buffers, we may be able to avert irreparable harm to our communities so that—with patience—we may be able to engage in civil discussions and better decision-making.

  3. John Stephens

    Glad to share SOG colleague Margaret Henderson’s thoughts from a leadership perspective on this same area of challenge and opportunity.
    Positive Leadership in a Polarized World
    The leadership skills of public leaders of all kinds — especially city or county elected officials and managers — are being challenged this week in the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. In the midst of this pain and conflict, some effective leaders are employing strategies to move us forward in a positive way.
    The purpose of this blogpost is not to take a position on the correct decision to make about Confederate statues; that is up to individual communities to decide. Instead, our intention is to share wise leadership strategies to employ in the situation.
    For more –

  4. John Stephens

    One part of the current passions is a focus on a 2015 state law, and different interpretations of the power of UNC-Chapel Hill to remove or relocate the “Silent Sam” statue. If some folks consideration of the right kind of engagement and deliberation depend on an analysis of the law, I offer this from my SOG colleague Adam Lovelady: Statues and Statutes: Limits on Removing Monuments from Public Property –

  5. John Stephens

    From the NCPIO listserv:
    Pitt County has monument/statue in front of our courthouse, not to any specific general or individual, just the “confederate dead” in a generic sense. Last weekend (8/12), I fielded an official request via our Twitter account (@PittCountyNC) to have it removed. I replied that the request would be forwarded to our County Commissioners, and that our next Board meeting on August 21 (today) at 6:00pm. Immediately following the request, a petition was started on, which reached 1,400 signatures before being closed this morning.

    In the week following, the story of the request and subsequent petition has run on all of the local television and newspaper outlets, with some minor regional coverage as well. A “peace vigil” was held at the courthouse in front of the monument on Friday (8/18), which drew about 100 attendees. Public comment sections of local media websites notwithstanding, the face to face interaction within our community has actually been quite civil and low-key. The petition is expected to be delivered to the Commissioners during their meeting tonight (8/21), and although we have prepared for most every scenario, we are not anticipating a disruptive event.
    Michael Scott Emory, Director of Public Information, Pitt County

  6. Vonnie James

    This article and these comments are very important for the current conversations on racism, slavery and Black Lives Matter. From a theological perspective, I will be doing a newspaper piece on “Why should or should we not pull them down?” and your thoughts expressed here brings clarity and good political and contextual understanding especially to a Black person who is not from or living in the USA. Thank you.


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