We must remove racist symbols from North Carolina’s courthouses

Raleigh Confederate Monument
The Confederate monument at the State Capitol in Raleigh was removed in 2020.

This week, a diverse group of criminal justice leaders announced a campaign to rid North Carolina’s courthouses of Confederate symbols. At least 39 counties have these racist monuments on grounds that should be dedicated to impartial justice.

The N.C. Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Criminal Justice System says it will create a complete database of all Confederate symbols on courthouse grounds; sponsor events to educate the public on the history of these monuments, most of which were erected in the Jim Crow era as symbols of white supremacy; develop a legislative and legal strategy for monument removal; and serve as a resource for communities seeking to remove them.

At NCCADP, we wholeheartedly support this work and see it as closely related to our efforts to abolish the death penalty. Confederate monuments are the clearest symbols of the racist roots that created our modern criminal punishment system and spawned its cruelest punishment, the death penalty.

As our partner organization CDPL points out, many of the 137 people on death row were sentenced to death in the shadows of Confederate monuments, sometimes by all-white juries. [Read one such story here.] Every day that these monuments stand, they continue to harm our communities.

We also should acknowledge that, in the past, NCCADP might have stayed silent on this issue. We might have thought it wasn’t directly related to the death penalty and let others raise their voices instead.

But, as NCCADP’s new Executive Director Noel Nickle said in this article on Waging Nonviolence, we now want to be more intentional in acknowledging that racism and the death penalty are inextricably linked. We also realize that we cannot create a successful movement to end the death penalty in isolation. We must support all movements for justice, knowing their success is bound up with our own.

This past summer, Noel went before the city council in her hometown of Asheville to support the removal of a downtown monument to Zebulon Vance, a Confederate colonel and three-term governor of North Carolina who enslaved people and was known for his abhorrent racist rhetoric. Noel is Vance’s direct descendant, and she asked on behalf of her family that the city remove the monument.

She told the council, “I deeply desire to transform my family’s legacy for future generations. This monument represents what I hope to dismantle.”

Confederate monuments on courthouse lawns represent what NCCADP hopes to dismantle: A criminal and carceral system built to preserve the racial order. A system that dehumanizes and marginalizes people, traumatizes families, and devalues life.