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N.C. Appeals Court rejects NAACP challenge to Alamance County’s Confederate monument

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The second highest court in North Carolina has rejected a plea from the state’s chapter of the NAACP to force Alamance County to move a long-standing Confederate monument from the grounds of its historic courthouse in Graham.

“None of the statutory exceptions to the Monument Protection Law . . . apply in the present case. Alamance County . . . can only act within the boundaries set forth by the General Assembly . . . [and] under the Monument Protection Law, the county has no authority to move the Monument.”

– N.C. Appeals Court panel

In a ruling filed on Tuesday, a three judge panel with the N.C. Court of Appeals found no legal basis to compel the county to relocate this century-old landmark – notwithstanding the contrary claims that prompted the NAACP and several other co-plaintiffs to take the county to court in 2021.

In rendering this judgment, the three judges unanimously rejected the civil rights organization’s assertions that the county is legally obligated to take down this monument because its potent associations with “white supremacy” amount to a denial of “equal protection” under both the state and federal constitutions.

Nor do the appeals court judges accept the plaintiffs’ suggestion that the county has the legal authority to uproot this monument under a “public safety” exemption to a state-level Monument Protection Law that otherwise forbids the removal of Confederate memorials and other “objects of remembrance” from public property.

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“None of the statutory exceptions to the Monument Protection Law…apply in the present case,” the appeals panel goes on to contend. “Alamance County…can only act within the boundaries set forth by the General Assembly…[and] under the Monument Protection Law, the county has no authority to move the Monument.”

The NAACP and its co-plaintiffs had offered a somewhat counterintuitive interpretation of this same statute when their case originally came to trial in Alamance County. The plaintiffs argued at the time that a provision which, on its face, seems to allow the temporary relocation of monuments deemed structurally unsound also applies to those which are so politically charged that they foment public unrest.

In the case of Alamance County’s Confederate memorial, tensions between rival groups of activists had actually inspired a former county manager to propose the monument’s temporary removal amid the “racial justice” demonstrations that swept much of the nation in 2020. The county manager’s suggestion nevertheless failed to gain any traction with the county’s governing board.

The commissioners ultimately deferred to the Monument Law, which the General Assembly had previously passed precisely to prevent the dismantling of public tributes to the Confederacy by either local officials or ad hoc gatherings of residents.

The case for the monument’s removal eventually found its way before Forrest Donald Bridges, a visiting superior court judge who was presiding in Alamance County in the fall of 2022. After hearing from both parties, Bridges summarily rejected the NAACP’s contentions that the county was not only permitted, but obligated, to move the memorial.

The superior court judge’s ruling triggered an appeal from the plaintiffs, who argued that Bridges had glossed over the memorial’s violation of equal protection, the county’s wasteful expenditure of public funds to protect the monument from vandals, and even a breach of the state’s constitutional decree that all courts should be open because the monument’s potent symbolism is so off-putting to a significant share of the public.

The NAACP’s challenge to the lower court’s ruling was eventually heard by the N.C. Court of Appeals on November 11, 2023. Based on the ensuing thrust and parry between the litigants, Chris Dillon, the chief judge of the three member panel, found no discriminatory intent on the part of the county, no abuse of discretion, nor any other violation that would undermine the lower court’s ruling.

“For the foregoing reasons, we affirm the trial court’s order granting summary judgment to the defendants,” he added with the concurrence of fellow judges Donna Stroud and Valarie Johnson Zachary.

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