In a letter sent to Burke County Commissioners on Thursday, the Morganton City Council asked for the board to facilitate a discussion about the Confederate monument that sits on the historic courthouse square.
But commissioners seemed to nix the idea of a discussion before having the letter in their hands.
The letter, which the council directed city staff to send in a unanimous motion at its meeting Monday night, cites concerns over elevated tensions surrounding the statue in the last year.
“The Commissioners have no doubt heard voices on both sides of this issue, as well as those calling for compromise or just for calm, and the City has also heard from all sides,” the council wrote in the letter. “Emotions and feelings run deep on both sides. We are also well aware of the constraints placed by State statute on any local action concerning this monument.”
The council said they recognize the decision must come from the board of commissioners since the county owns the statue.
“For decades, Morganton has leased the Courthouse Square around this monument, and has used it and programmed it as a welcoming space to be enjoyed by Burke County citizens and visitors alike,” the letter said. “As you know, the City is currently investing $3,000,000 in renovation and improvement of the space.
“We remain concerned about the division which this issue causes in our community. The City Council hopes there could be peaceful compromise.”
The letter goes on to ask commissioners to facilitate a discussion between those on all sides of the issue, and said that if the commissioners ever do decide to move the monument – in whole or in part – the city can offer it a place in Forest Hill Cemetery.
But county commissioners apparently had made up their minds on the topic before even receiving the letter from the council Thursday.
Commissioners already had slated a discussion on the statue and North Carolina General Statute 100-2.1 for their Tuesday pre-agenda meeting. City council members also were briefed about the law at their meeting Monday night by City Attorney Louis Vinay.
The law outlines specific parameters under which objects of remembrance, like the statue on the square, can be removed or relocated. For example, items like the statue can only be moved when it’s required to preserve the object or when it’s necessary for construction, renovation, transportation and other similar projects.
Highway markers are exempt from the limitations, along with objects of remembrance owned by a private party but placed on public property and objects of remembrance which a building inspector or similar official determined to pose a threat to public safety.
Tuesday’s county meeting came about three weeks after more than 60 people asked the commissioners to remove the statue from the courthouse square. At the board’s meeting last month, about 15 people showed their support for keeping the statue, with five of them speaking to the board to express their support. Two of them do not live in the county.
At that meeting, commissioners did not address the issue, besides Chairman Jeff Brittain assuring speakers that their voices had been heard. Tuesday, he called on County Attorney J.R. Simpson to address the statue and state law.
Simpson told the board it’s his understanding that the county owns the statue, and that it could not be moved since it does not meet any of the exceptions lined out in the law.
He did say that if any action were to be taken regarding the statue, it would need to be taken in conjunction with the city since the city leases the courthouse square from the county.
Simpson said a lawsuit had been filed against Gaston County by the NAACP and some other groups because the county did not remove its statue, and the lawsuit requests NCGS 100-2.1 be declared unconstitutional, he said. A similar suit was filed against Alamance County, he said.
The lawsuits could potentially end up in front of the state supreme court to decide, Simpson said.
Commissioner Scott Mulwee said he is “always open and willing to discuss whatever, and look at options,” but confirmed with Simpson that he didn’t believe the board would be able to move the monument. If legal precedent ever gave the county the ability to move the monument, Mulwee and Simpson surmised, the commissioners and city council would have to act together because of the city’s lease for the courthouse property.
“It just gets kind of frustrating somewhat because we’ve pretty much given the city carte blanche when it comes to that courthouse, and actually probably expanded upon their scope of work beyond what we actually anticipated,” Mulwee said. “And some of it looks good, I’m not knocking that, but I just found it curious that we’re not responsible for anything but a certain square footage where that statue happens to be standing.”
Commissioner Maynard Taylor focused less on the idea of discussion in his comments Tuesday and more on the idea of moving the statue.
“What kind of person would ask you to break an oath that you swore on the Bible?” Taylor said at the meeting. “That you would uphold the Constitution, federal law, state law, county law?”
Taylor referenced the recent Easter holiday in his statement.
“There was a hate movement that crucified Jesus,” Taylor said. “And the two kings, and other people involved in that whole ordeal, did not have the fortitude or the courage to uphold the truth and to do the right thing. I am proud that this is on here and we can solidify that the law is the law.”
He said he didn’t think God would be pleased if the county removed the statue.
“We really don’t have a choice in this, as far as, and I agree with J.R., the law’s pretty clear on it,” Taylor said. “It was put there by past generations for remembrance purposes, and as such we should not move it.”
Brittain spoke to say that, while the commissioners have heard this lesson before about the statue and the legalities of removing or relocating it, he felt it was necessary to bring up again. That’s why he asked Simpson to speak about the general statute at Tuesday’s meeting.
“I think he’s correct,” Brittain said. “My interpretation of what the law says and the specifics of our monument, I think, you know, I think we cannot mess with it. That being said, unless there’s some other direction this board wishes to take, it will be my statement going forward that, based on legal opinion, that we cannot move the monument and we will take no further action at this time.”
Commissioner Johnnie Carswell said he felt like the county had done its due diligence to facilitate conversation.
“I think we’ve already done that,” Carswell said. “I think we’ve listened in a number of meetings to people that come in that were for the monument, some that were against the monument, and I think our door has always been open.”
He agreed with Taylor and said that the commissioners should not move the statue.
“As far as I’m concerned, the law is the law,” Carswell said. “And that, when you have an attorney that sat there [Monday] night and read the law, and said that some of these things are very specific, that they’re going to send a letter to tell us that we need to do certain things? We’ve already done that, and I’m somewhat offended … I think we’ve done everything that people could expect us to do.”
He said if he could have it his way, instead of moving the statue or monument, he would like to see a plaque added to the square near the monument.
“I’d rather we put up some kind of plaque up there that says ‘we, the citizens of Burke County, choose to remember our past and to take seriously the lessons we have learned, and rather than be offended, we choose to take a moment to offer forgiveness and to receive forgiveness, and to pledge to work together for a more promising future,” Carswell said.
The county will have its regular meeting April 20. The Morganton City Council will meet again May 3.