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NAACP and others file lawsuit against county to have Confederate monument removed

A coalition of local advocacy groups has sued Alamance County’s elected leaders for allegedly ducking their constitutional obligations by ignoring calls to relocate a Confederate monument that has stood at the northern approach to the county’s historic courthouse for over a century.

The plaintiffs, who include the state and local chapters of the NAACP and Down Home North Carolina, filed this legal complaint in superior court on Tuesday in order to get a judge’s nod that the county has both the legal authority and the responsibility to remove the memorial.

The plaintiffs have also asked the court to order the county’s board of commissioners, whose members are individually identified as defendants, to relocate the monument from the grounds of the courthouse.

The lawsuit asserts that, by glorifying the Confederate cause, the county’s memorial isn’t just an innocuous relic of Alamance County’s past.

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“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.”

This lawsuit is merely the latest in a series of court actions that have arisen over the past year as protesters have repeatedly converged on the courthouse to demand racial justice, in general, and the monument’s removal, in particular.

The NAACP previously filed suit against the county and the city of Graham for restrictions they had placed on demonstrations in Court Square for reasons that included concerns over the monument’s potential destruction. Last fall, the Greensboro-based minister Gregory Drumwright lodged another legal complaint after municipal police officers and sheriff’s deputies used pepper spray to disperse a racial justice demonstration that had been permitted on the grounds of the courthouse.

The latest lawsuit is nevertheless the first to take direct aim at the monument, which has effectively guarded the northern approach to courthouse ever since the United Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated it to the county in 1914.

The multi-story stone obelisk, which is topped by the statue of a Confederate soldier, has been a regular source of consternation for the county’s board of commissioners over the past several years. Since 2015, a succession of area residents has approached the board’s members to request the monument’s relocation in light of its alleged connotations of white supremacy. Last June, Alamance County’s manager Bryan Hagood gave a bit of a boost to these calls when he emailed the commissioners to propose the monument’s immediate removal during a weekend demonstration that he feared would end in violence or property damage.

In their 41-page complaint, the plaintiffs recall Hagood’s suggestion, which the commissioners declined to pursue at the time, and which the county hasn’t mentioned again. They also recount some of the other requests that the commissioners have heard as well as their standing response that the county lacks the legal authority to relocate the monument.

In order to justify their position on the memorial, the county commissioners have taken their cue from Alamance County’s attorney Clyde Albright, who contends that the county is obligated to leave the memorial in place under a state statute that the General Assembly has passed to preserve so-called “objects of remembrance.”

Albright has also rejected suggestions from critics who believe that the county can avail itself of an exemption in the aforementioned statute, which allows objects of remembrance to be moved when they pose a danger to public safety. The county attorney has argued that this provision clearly refers to monuments that are structurally unsound. Yet, in the text of their lawsuit, the plaintiffs put little stock in Albright’s interpretation.

“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. They rely, in particular, on a law enacted by the General Assembly in 2015 titled ‘Protections of monuments, memorials, and works of art.’”

The plaintiffs go on to assert that the law, which the Republican led legislature explicitly passed to preempt the removal of Confederate tributes, does not apply to these monuments because they commemorate “armed rebellion against the United States” rather than “service in the United States military or the North Carolina National Guard.”

The plaintiffs further insist that the county not only has the right, but a legal imperative, to relocate the memorial. The lawsuit contends that this “symbol of white supremacy” literally “stands in violation of North Carolina’s state constitution – and in particular, an “equal protection” provision that mirrors the language of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

The suit argues that the monument’s location before a house of justice constitutes an affront to the very idea of equal protection.

“The monument stands as a symbol of white supremacy in front of the doors to the county courthouse and at the center of the community, and therefore uniquely imposes harm on black plaintiffs,” the legal complaint goes on to profess. “Plaintiffs have no choice but to conduct daily activities in the shadow of a demeaning monument that repeatedly attracts those espousing racist and white supremacist views.”

The lawsuit goes on to observe that the area surrounding the monument has been a battleground for “numerous altercations between protesters, counter protesters, and law enforcement.” It also underscores the costs that the county has incurred for “monument-related activities, including providing overtime compensation to deputies, paying legal expenses, and devoting staff time to citizen and media inquiries.” The lawsuit points out that, by its own admission, the office of Alamance County’s sheriff had spent some $747,672 on the demonstrations that took place in downtown Graham last year. The suit goes on to observe that the county may be exposing itself to additional legal liability due to claims related to the Confederate monument.

The arguments that appear in this lawsuit are, for the most part, rather familiar to Barrett Brown, the president of Alamance County’s branch of the NAACP. Brown told The Alamance News that the legal complaint his organization has co-sponsored is largely a reiteration of pleas that he and other area residents have made to the commissioners for the past couple of years.

“I’ve been pretty consistent about my belief that it has to come down,” the chapter president acknowledged on Wednesday. “They keep playing hot potato with it: somebody says it belongs to the county; somebody claims it belongs to the town; somebody says that they don’t have the authority to remove it.

“I don’t even want it torn down,” he added. “I would be the grand martial of a parade to move it with all solemnity to a cemetery or battlefield… [but] they’re doing all this to protect the legacy of white supremacy, and when people just stonewall you, there’s nothing you can do but seek legal redress.”

The lawsuit which the NAACP and its co-plaintiffs have filed ultimately asks a superior court judge to affirm their assertion that the monument violates one or more provisions of the state constitution and that the county has the legal authority to relocate it. The suit also seeks a court order that would force the county to “remove the Confederate monument from its current location within forty-five days” and prohibit it “from placing it on any other county-owned or [county-]maintained public property.” The suit further requests remuneration for the plaintiffs’ legal fees and “all other relief as is proper and just.”

In addition to Down Home North Carolina, the state and local NAACP’s co-plaintiffs in this lawsuit include Engage Alamance, which is identified in the text of the complaint as an organization of local business owners and taxpayers. Joining these four organizations are Dreama Caldwell and Tamara Kersey, whom the complaint describes as black residents of Alamance County (Caldwell was also an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for the county’s all-Republican board of commissioners); as well as white county residents Daniel Kuhn, Randy Orwig, and Maryanne Shanahan.

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