A visiting superior court judge has rejected a request from the state’s premier civil rights organization to make Alamance County remove a long-standing Confederate monument from the grounds of its historic courthouse.
During a brief court session on Tuesday, superior court judge Donald Bridges issued a summary judgment against this request, which North Carolina’s chapter of the NAACP originally filed in March of 2021 in order force the county to relocate this 108-year-old memorial.
In granting this summary judgment, Bridges agreed with attorneys for Alamance County that the NAACP had failed to show the sort of substantive factual disagreement needed to warrant a trial, which had been slated to begin later this week if not for the judge’s ruling on Tuesday.
“Your arguments have been well thought out, well researched, and well reasoned,” he assured both sets of litigants that afternoon. “That being said…upon consideration of the arguments, this court concludes that there is no genuine issue of material fact [and] that the defendants are entitled to a judgment as a matter of law against each claim that the defendants have presented in this case.”
Monument has stood since 1914
The NAACP’s lawyers told The Alamance News that they intend to appeal Bridges’ decision. Even so, his ruling has brought a somewhat tentative conclusion to this, most recent installment in the dispute that has raged over the county’s Confederate monument.
This granite pillar, which is capped by the stone likeness of Rebel in arms, has stood on the grounds of the courthouse since 1914, when the Daughters of the Confederacy donated the monument to Alamance County.
Meant, on its face, to honor area residents who fought for the Confederate States, this towering tribute has stood on the north side of the courthouse – first, beginning in 1914, at the entrance to the county’s original courthouse and, since 1923, in front of the current courthouse building. Within the past decade, and particularly since the death of George Floyd in 2020, the monument’s meaning has spurred a swirl of controversy over the monument’s continued existence in front of the courthouse.
Charleston shootings, George Floyd death prompt protests against the monument – and state law to protect “objects of remembrance”
In 2015, the memorial’s location came under fire after a racially-motivated church shooting in Charleston brought renewed scrutiny to Confederate mementos across the U.S. This change in the national mood eventually prompted South Carolina to banish the Stars and Bars from the grounds of its state capitol. It also inspired protesters in some North Carolina cities to demolish Confederate statues without waiting for the imprimatur of their elected leaders.
This urge to sweep away the past had a contrary effect on North Carolina’s General Assembly, whose Republican-led majority pushed through the so-called Historic Artifact Management and Patriotism Act, which forbids the removal of Confederate monuments and other publicly-owned “objects of remembrance.” Under this law, even elected bodies are prohibited to tinker with protected objects – except under some fairly limited circumstances, such as structural degradation and other public safety hazards.
Even before the passage of this state legislation, Alamance County’s commissioners had already declared their disinclination to move or dismantle their own homage to the Confederate States. But the law’s approval only strengthened the resolve of the commissioners to stick to their guns. Even so, the county’s leaders have continued to hear periodic calls to take down the monument.
These pleas took on an added intensity in the spring of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police set off a national clamor for racial equity in the criminal justice system.
A cause for action
It was amid the heightened sensitivities stoked by Floyd’s death that North Carolina’s chapter of the NAACP began to mount its legal campaign against Alamance County’s Confederate monument. In March of 2021, the organization formally sued the county as well as the members of its board of commissioners to compel them to remove this memorial from the grounds of the courthouse.
The NAACP insisted that the defendants had failed to live up to their obligations under the state constitution by allowing this monument “to white supremacy” to remain in this location. The organization also accused the county of violating the constitutional rights of black residents – several of whom are among the NAACP’s co-plaintiffs in this legal action.
The county, for its part, initially tried to get the court to dismiss the NAACP’s case, although its lawyers failed to convince a superior court judge that the organization’s complaint was so obviously flawed that it should be thrown out entirely.
Denied an outright dismissal, the county’s attorneys went on to request a summary judgment in the hope that they could short circuit this case before it went to trial.
The county’s motion
The county’s arguments for a summary judgment were laid out by Christopher Geis, an attorney with the Winston-Salem-based firm Womble Bond Dickinson who has emerged as the county’s chief legal counsel in its dispute with the NAACP.
During a pre-trial hearing on Monday, Geis insisted that the NAACP’s entire case hangs on whether the county’s Confederate monument enjoys the state’s statutory protection as an object of remembrance.
Geis went on to recall that the preservation of Confederate monuments was the General Assembly’s unabashed goal when it enacted the aforementioned law in 2015. He argued that the commissioners shouldn’t be faulted for following the legislature’s lead when they chose to preserve the county’s own monument. Conversely, if the commissioners really do have the authority to relocate this landmark, Geis insisted that they shouldn’t be dinged for using their discretion to leave it in place.
Geis stressed that, in the final analysis, this determination to preserve or remove the monument is a policy decision that’s best left to a democratically-elected body like the General Assembly or the board of commissioners.
“The plaintiffs want one judge to invalidate what the elected board of commissioners has decided, and that is not democratic,” he argued. “What you have in this case is a difference of opinion about his monument, which is what a democratically-elected board is there to thrash out.”
[Story continues below quotations from hearing and lawsuit.]
“In the face of calls from the county manager and countless others for the monument to come down, members of the Alamance County board of commissioners and the county attorney have taken the erroneous position that they are legally prohibited from removing the monument.
– NAACP lawsuit
“The plaintiffs want one judge to invalidate what the elected board of commissioners has decided,” he added,” and that is not democratic.”
– Christopher Geis of Womble Bond Dickinson law firm, representing Alamance County’s commissioners
“The only threat present [in Alamance County’s case] is the threat posed by crowds who disagree about whether the statue should be removed, and one should not benefit from one’s own creation of a danger.”
– Christopher Geis of Womble Bond Dickinson law firm, representing Alamance County’s commissioners
“The multi-story structure…poses a threat to public safety, drains the public fisc, and stands in violation of multiple provisions of the North Carolina constitution,” legal complaint goes on to declare. “Its presence harms all county taxpayers, particularly black residents…Yet, the Alamance County board of commissioners refuses to act.”
– From original NAACP lawsuit
The defendants’ attorney went on to assert that, as offensive as this monument may be to some people, it cannot be construed as a violation of anyone’s rights under either the state or the federal constitutions. Geis noted that the federal courts have even upheld the Constitutionality of so provocative a symbol as the Confederate battle flag that once flew over the state house in Montgomery, Alabama.
”Who dictates when a monument gives offense? Will monuments to 9-11 be offensive 100 years from now?” the county’s legal counsel went on to inquire. “Does one person’s or one group’s offense genuinely rise to a Constitutional claim? Clearly it does not. A lot of people believe that the last Presidential election was stolen, and they’re offended by it. But they’re wrong.”
Geis also took issue with the plaintiff’s contention that the commissioners could take advantage of an exemption in the state law that permits the relocation of memorials which pose public safety hazards. He argued that a reference in the law to a building inspector makes it clear that the legislature was thinking of structural dangers when it wrote this exemption.
“The only threat present [in Alamance County’s case] is the threat posed by crowds who disagree about whether the statue should be removed,” he added, “and one should not benefit from one’s own creation of a danger.”
The plaintiffs’ response
The NAACP, on the other hand, has seen the threat posed by rival demonstrators as a preeminent reason to move the Confederate monument from the grounds of the courthouse. The organization’s lawyers have pointed out that then-county manager Bryan Hagood reached a similar conclusion during the unrest that occurred in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Although the commissioners ultimately disregarded Hagood’s emphatic pleas to allow the monument’s temporary removal, his suggestion has nevertheless had a rather prolific afterlife as a lynchpin in the NAACP’s case against the county.
Karin Dryhurst, who has served as the NAACP’s lead counsel in this case, noted that the clash of opinions regarding the former county manager’s advice is just one of the many factual disagreements that continue to divide the two litigants.
During Monday’s pretrial hearing, Dryhurst mentioned a number of other factual disputes that had emerged in the pre-trial phase of this case. She observed, for example, that the litigants are at loggerheads over whether the county’s Confederate monument is a “military memorial,” as the county contends, or “symbol to white supremacy” as she and her clients argue. She also saw no consensus among the parties as to whether the commissioners were ever properly advised of the legal options available to them under the relevant state statute.
“Those are factual disputes to be considered at trial,” she added. “At most, there remains a genuine dispute about the purpose of the monument that must be resolved.”
Dryhurst went on to give Bridges an overview of the case which she and her colleagues would present if he deigned to let the suit go to trial. The NAACP’s attorney said that the plaintiffs would present surveys and other evidence to show the impact that Confederate monuments have had on black North Carolinians. She also promised to call witnesses to describe the memorial’s psychological toll and to recount the unpleasant experiences they’ve had with its more ardent supporters.
The judge explains his decision
Once he had announced his decision to reject the NAACP’s claims, Bridges took the admittedly fraught step of explaining the reasons why he considered this ruling to be legally justified under the circumstances.
The judge proceeded to concur with the county’s attorneys that the NAACP’s whole lawsuit revolves around the statute which the General Assembly enacted in 2015 to protect so-called objects of remembrance.
“That statute was enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly…to protect items like this particular monument,” he elaborated. “It is clear that this was the intention in enacting that statute…and that the county commissioners relied on this statute in their decision-making process and in their decision not to remove this particular monument.
“The power of this court to repeal either of these legislative policy decisions is extremely limited,” Bridges continued. “Courts are extremely reluctant to interfere, leaving the second-guessing of these policy issues by elected officials to be addressed at the ballot box.
“I realize that there are facts on which the parties disagree, but that does not constitute genuine issues of material fact to be determined at trial,” he added. “It has also been absolutely clear that whatever decision I made in this case will be appealed.”