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Rocky Mount votes to remove Confederate monument

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ROCKY MOUNT — City officials have voted to remove a Confederate monument that’s stood in Battle Park for more than 100 years.

At least two Rocky Mount City Council members who voted for removal, Mayor Pro-tem Andre Knight and Councilman Reuben Blackwell, participated in a peaceful protest May 31 at the monument two days prior to an initial vote for its removal. A second vote with the same results took place June 8.

Blackwell’s son Cooper organized the rally at the monument to protest police brutality and promote social equality.

The elder Blackwell said he hates to drive past the monument.

“It’s something that memorializes murder to me and to people who look like me, rape to me and people who look like me and economic subjugation to me and people who look like me,” Blackwell said.

People call the Confederate markers monuments, but they’re really memorials, said Frank Powell, spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

“They stand for people who answered the call of their governor and died defending their state,” Powell said. “U.S. Congress has made Confederate soldiers the same as U.S. soldiers. These memorials deserve respect.”

The markers honor Confederate soldiers who are buried in unmarked graves all around the South, Powell said.

Anyone who attributes anything more than a memorial to the markers is creating a false narrative, Powell said.

“These monuments don’t stand for slavery, racism or white supremacy,” Powell said.

Much of the resistance to removing the monument in Battle Park is that it had been rededicated to all U.S. soldiers in the 1970s.

Like Tesla and Marconi simultaneously and separately inventing the radio, Knight and Councilman Lige Daughtridge came up with a similar idea to replace the monument. Both men spoke with this newspaper about the possibility of replacing the Confederate monument at Battle Park with another memorial. Knight said he’s thinking about a memorial to all veterans of all wars and of all colors.

Daughtridge, who also voted to remove the monument, said he’d like to see a memorial to first responders put in its place.

“I think that should include teachers, especially given a teacher’s role in fighting discrimination,” Daughtridge said.

The 6-1 council vote to remove the monument included four black and two white council members. The monument is just south of the interchange with U.S. 64 and Benvenue Road and just south of the vehicle entrance to Battle Park.

Both U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat, and state Sen. Rick Horner, a Republican, represent Nash County. They have polar opposite positions on Confederate monuments.

Butterfield is calling for the immediate removal of all Confederate monuments displayed on government property.

“These monuments depict a period of history that must be taught to future generations, but not celebrated,” Butterfield said.

Being part of history is exactly why the monuments shouldn’t be toppled, Horner said. 

“I hope they don’t take them down,” Horner said. “We shouldn’t erase history. Good, bad or ugly, it’s history. It’s not something enlightened people would do.”

Horner said he fully supports installing other monuments to help explain the past and put current events in perspective, but he said no standing monument should be taken down.

Rocky Mount’s been joined by a chorus of state and local officials across the South who have endorsed plans to remove controversial monuments and rename roads and buildings with Confederate titles.

Next door in Wilson, Carlton Stevens, the city’s first black mayor, said he plans to ask the city council create a commission of local leaders to recommend responsible actions in addressing the monument issue.

Stevens said he’s been approached by several residents about whether the city should continue to display relics of the past representing a dark period in American history.

“Other cities have taken responsible actions that have addressed this issue and reconciling the different viewpoints regarding these monuments of the past,” Stevens said.

Gov. Roy Cooper called for the removal of Confederate monuments three years ago in the aftermath of riots in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In Alabama, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin announced the removal of a five-story Confederate statue despite protection by rules similar to the 2015 North Carolina law preventing city and county governments from removing historical monuments without the N.C. Historical Commission’s approval.

The New Orleans City Council is talking about renaming Jefferson Davis Parkway, which is named for the Confederate States of America’s first and only president. A possible new name would honor Norman Francis, civil rights leader and president of Xavier University.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has announced the removal of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s statue from Richmond’s Monument Avenue, but the issue has since been tied up in state courts.

The renewed call for toppling Confederate monuments coincides with a nationwide demand for racial justice and an end to police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25. That officer now faces a murder charge.

The Confederate monument issue last popped up in summer 2017 when Wilson residents asked the city council to remove two monuments.

Erick Jenkins, a Wilson native studying at East Carolina University, said the monuments stand opposed to the ideals espoused in the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

The argument has been around as long as the monuments. Folks who want to take the monuments down contend the statues commemorate traitors who fought against the United States to defend slavery and maintain white supremacy. People who want to preserve the structures argue the monuments are about Southern pride and have a place in American history.

The debate turned deadly two years ago in Charlottesville when protesters clashed with white nationalists at a Unite the Right rally.