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Lincoln Herald | Lincolnton, NC

home : news : news August 13, 2020

6/24/2020 3:04:00 AM
Should It Stay Or Should It Go?
The statue towers above the plaza in front of the Gaston County Courthouse on Martin Luther King Way in Gastonia.
The statue towers above the plaza in
front of the Gaston County Courthouse
on Martin Luther King Way in Gastonia.

Citizen Recognition portion of the meeting.
Citizen Recognition portion of the meeting.

+ view more photos
Commission Chairman Tracy Philbeck:
"We have an opportunity to bring our
community together instead of dividing it."

Wayne Howard
Staff Writer

It wasn't on the agenda for Tuesday evening's (June 23rd) Gaston County Commissioners meeting, but commentary on the Confederate statue in front of the Gaston County Courthouse took up over an hour of the meeting. Twenty people, some in favor of seeing the statue removed, others wanting it to remain, spoke during the Citizen Recognition portion of the meeting before Commission Chairman Tracy Philbeck ended the comments.

Most of those who spoke had obviously expected to use the usual five minutes allotted for the comment period, but Philbeck limited the comments to two minutes and set a one hour time limit. He promised that before any decision is made on the statue, people will have an opportunity to speak during a public hearing. His decision to end the comment period drew opposition from some including one woman Philbeck asked be removed from the meeting.

Philbeck said he considered any decision that might be reached before more conversation a 'knee-jerk' action. He commented, "No matter what we do, if we keep it or take it down, we're going to be divided." He appointed appointed Commissioner Tom Keigher to head up a committee, which Keigher himself named a 'Council of Understanding' to explore possible solutions to the statue issue.

County attorney Jonathan Lee Sink said Commissioners may not be able to move the statue. Sink said North Carolina General Statute 100-2.1 says an 'object of remembrance,' which this statue is, can only be moved to protect it--the statue--from the danger of being destroyed...for the preservation of the object.

The statue of an unnamed Confederate soldier stands on a pedestal towering three stories tall in front of the Gaston County Courthouse. It was moved there when the Courthouse opened, from a location in front of the old Gaston County Courthouse on South Street, in 1996. The statue was originally placed in 1912 by the Daughters of the Confederacy during America's "Jim Crow" era.

For anyone not familiar, during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, federal laws provided civil rights protections in the South for former slaves, and the minority of blacks who had been free before the war. Some blacks were elected to high offices during that period since many of the whites who had fought for the secessionist states had lost their citizenship.  They were Republicans, aligned with the party of Lincoln. In the 1870s, Democrats--some of them former Confederate soldiers and some former slave owners--gradually regained power in the Southern legislatures, and began enacting laws in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to disenfranchise and remove political and economic gains made by blacks. The name 'Jim Crow' comes from a black-face minstrel character created in the 1830s as a derogatory stereotype for blacks. A compromise in the aftermath of the Presidential election of 1876 made the restoration of power to the former Confederates complete and ushered in 'Jim Crow,' the name commonly given to the effort to subjugate blacks.

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This isn't the first time the statue has become an issue. There were those who objected to its placement in front of the new courthouse when it was moved there.

In 2015, following the murder of nine people at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, by Dylan Roof, there was an effort to have the statue removed and a rally by Confederate sympathizers to keep it in place. Roof was arrested in Shelby after fleeing Charleston and was later sentenced to die for the mass murder, although he has appealed his sentence.

In July 2015, less than a month after Roof's rampage, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans held a rally at the statue in Gastonia. The main speaker at that rally was Bill Starnes, commander of the Gaston County SCV, who also spoke Tuesday night.

Chris Thomason, then as now president of the Gaston County NAACP, said then that the statue needs to be moved. "It belongs in a museum, not on the grounds of a public building," Thomason said five years ago. He also spoke Tuesday night.

Several of the speakers Tuesday night wore the SCV logo on their clothing.

Two of the Commissioners have expressed opposing opinions about the statue. Commissioner Ronnie Worley says it should be moved. Commissioner Chad Brown wants to keep it where it is.

Brent Messer, a former president of the Gaston County Museum of Art & History, suggested moving it to the historic Gaston County Courthouse in Dallas. There is actually a Confederate Soldiers Monument already there in front of the historic courthouse. It was placed there in 2003. Another of Tuesday evening's speakers suggested moving the monument to a graveyard where Confederate soldiers are buried.

Philbeck says Commissioners can do what they want, but Sink's comments seem to disagree. Sink, who served as Executive Director of the North Carolina Republican Party prior to becoming Gaston County attorney in March, says the only way it can be moved is to protect the statue.

Keigher said his committee will include a diverse group of citizens, adding that after discussions, it will make a recommendation to the Commissioners within four weeks.

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