Walking through downtown Graham, citizens and visitors alike are greeted by locally owned businesses and restaurants, colorful murals and the historic Alamance County Courthouse — home to one of 42 Confederate monuments that stand across the state of North Carolina.
The North Carolina Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities tracks monuments across the state, many of which were erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the 1900s. According to the NC CRED data, the Graham Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy sponsored the Alamance County Courthouse Confederate monument, and was dedicated in 1914.
Since it was put in the center of downtown Graham, the monument has been a magnet for protests, marches, demonstrations and conversation, including the March to the Polls event that ended in marchers pepper sprayed and multiple arrests.
For some, the statue may be a relic. But for Kristie Puckett Williams, the monument is a symbol of the racism entrenched in the community it inhabits.
“The ones at the courthouses are especially egregious because courthouses are supposed to be the halls of justice. Justice is supposed to be blind. It’s not supposed to care about race, money or any of those things,” Puckett Williams said. “But when you have a racist Confederate monument right outside of your court, then what does it say to Black and brown defendants about the type and amount of justice that they will receive in that building?”
But despite outcry from communities across the state who have similar statues or symbols, many monuments like the one in Graham still stand — not for the public, but rather because state law allows them to remain.
Puckett Williams, who serves as the deputy director for engagement and mobilization and the manager of the statewide campaign for smart justice at the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said she remembers a time before the monument in Graham had an 8-foot-tall iron fence around it, when it was on 24-hour watch by the Alamance County Sheriff’s Department back in 2020. To her, the monument in Graham represents “the tone and the tenor” of law enforcement in that county.
Thirty five symbols of the Confederacy have been removed from North Carolina, according to data obtained by the Southern Poverty Law Center. But 173 symbols statewide remain. North Carolina is among the states with the most Confederate symbols, with Georgia at the top of the list having 281 symbols of the Confederacy, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The monument in Graham is one of the more forward facing symbols of the Confederacy, but Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Alabama, Tafeni English said the symbols of the Confederacy come in many forms. From streets named after Confederate generals to school buildings and pedestals glorifying the history of the Confederacy, the SPLC has documented over 2,000 Confederate memorials that are publicly present around the U.S.
“Confederate symbols are living symbols of white supremacy, because we know that they were actually strategically placed in public spaces across the U.S., basically to intimidate African Americans during the height of the Civil Rights Movement,” English said.
The Daughters of the Confederacy is the nonprofit group that sponsored many of the Confederate symbols tracked by the North Carolina ACLU. The organization’s purpose lies in “the purpose of honoring the memory of its Confederate ancestors,” according to the organization’s objectives.
“Join us in denouncing hate groups and affirming that Confederate memorial statues and monuments are part of our shared American history and should remain in place,” President General Linda Edwards said in a statement on the organization’s website.
But the history Edwards and others are protecting, to English, ignores the history of slavery and the Jim Crow era.
“People were challenging Jim Crow racial segregation, and the history behind Confederate symbols having been used by white supremacist organizations, and they’ve always been used as tools of racial terror,” English said. “Again, that speaks volumes for wanting them to remain in these public spaces.”
However in his role as a staff attorney for justice systems reform at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Marcus Pollard said not everyone he talks to makes the connection between white supremacy and the Confederacy.
“When you talk to a person, depending on what history they were taught, shapes how they feel about the Confederacy, how they feel about the statues and how they feel about the flag,” Pollard said. “That’s why those monuments are still allowed to stand, because we cannot decide on what really happened during that time.”
While Puckett Williams and other organizers have advocated for the removal of the statue as well as others like it across the state, there are many hurdles people must overcome before the actual removal, Puckett Williams said.
In the state of North Carolina, monuments like the one erected in Graham are protected by state law. There are limitations on removal of monuments: “an object of remembrance” is not allowed to be permanently removed from where it stands, unless it is moved to a site of “similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability and access” to where it was previously. However the N.C. general statute chapter 100 states that the new location cannot be a museum, cemetery or mausoleum if the monument was not originally located in any of those places.
“Some states have adopted legislation around making it very difficult for them to be removed, even to the point of charging significant fines if they’re moved or destroyed, or things of that nature,” English said. “Their very existence really reminds us how easily white supremacy can erode democracy and contribute to eroding democracy.”
While these monuments can be temporarily relocated, it must return to its original location within 90 days, according to the statute. To remove, relocate or alter a monument, memorial or work of art owned by the state of North Carolina in any way outside the limitations stated in the statute, there must be approval by the North Carolina Historical Commission.
All three experts compared the legality of Confederate symbols to the illegality of Nazi symbolism in Germany: a stark reminder to Pollard of the varied opinions when it comes to American history.
“It’s against the law to have a Nazi flag. It’s against the law to teach Nazi doctrine, and it’s against the law to speak against the Holocaust and say that the Holocaust was fake or made up — It’s illegal to openly be a Holocaust denier. That’s how serious they took that event,” Pollard said. “Until our country gets serious about rectifying issues in the South with the Confederacy, we won’t move forward.”
Often, the argument for removal of one of the monuments centers around who owns it, and as such, whose responsibility it is to remove it. For Puckett Williams, this is central to the problem communities face when advocating for the monuments to come down.
“We will never get to who we need to be as a country as long as we are more concerned about marble and granite rocks than we are actual people,” Puckett Williams said.
As manager of the statewide grassroots campaign for smart justice, Pucket Williams said she wakes up every day to continue to advocate for the removal of these statues. While the fight has been long, Pucket Williams said she is not losing hope.
“I can imagine a time when these monuments will not be legal,” Puckett Williams said. “We have to get away from what’s legal and have to get back to what’s ethical, what’s moral, what’s principled. Because legal is often the lowest bar in this country for what’s right or wrong.”