The ultimate fate of one of Alamance County’s most contested landmarks is currently in the hands of three elected judges from the second highest court in North Carolina.
Last month, a three-member panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in the ongoing legal battle over the century-old Confederate monument that figuratively “guards” the main entrance to Alamance County’s Historic Court House in Graham.
A coalition of progressively-minded individuals and groups initially launched this judicial struggle in 2021 in order to force the county’s elected leaders to remove this granite pillar, along with the graven Rebel soldier that tops it, from its long-time perch on the grounds of the courthouse.
Led by North Carolina’s chapter of the NAACP, the monument’s detractors not only portrayed the monument as an atavistic tribute to white supremacy and racial oppression. They also argued that it presented a lightning rod for the demonstrations and counterdemonstrations that had repeatedly filled Courthouse Square since 2015.
The NAACP and its co-plaintiffs went on to argue that the county is not only permitted but legally obligated to move this monument despite a state statute that prohibits local authorities from dismantling Confederate statues and other so-called “objects of remembrance.” The plaintiffs pointed to an exemption in this state law that allows the temporary relocation of structures that are unsafe or hazardous, and they argued that this provision applies to the volatile public assemblies that had converged around Alamance County’s memorial.
The county, for its part, insisted that the plaintiff’s entire case had been based on a deliberate misreading of a state law whose very raison d’être was to prevent restive crowds from toppling Confederate memorials – as well as an exemption that was clearly inspired by structural hazards rather than the threat of public unrest.
In September of 2022, a visiting superior court judge summarily dismissed the NAACP’s case for the Confederate monument’s removal.
Less than six months later, the NAACP took its case to the N.C. Court of Appeals, arguing that the lower court judge had been overly hasty in his rejection of claims that the organization’s lawyers had originally marshaled.
The NAACP and its co-plaintiffs went on to file a series of legal briefs that insisted the superior court judge had ignored “genuine disputes of material fact,” including their own contention that the money which the county had spent on safeguarding the monument had amounted to a flagrant “misuse of taxpayer funds.” They also took issue with the county’s claims of legislative immunity as well as its reliance on the state law regarding objects of remembrance to justify what they contend is an overt violation of the state constitution.
The plaintiffs go on to urge the court of appeals to order the lower court to hold the jury trial which they had originally sought in order to resolve the legal dispute over the monument.
In the meantime, the county has harked back to the claims that proved so successful in superior court to persuade the court of appeals to uphold the lower court’s ruling.
Among other things, the county’s legal team challenges the plaintiffs’ assertions that the board of commissioners was “somehow doing something wrong” when it sought the advice of its own attorney before it chose not to relocate the memorial. The county’s lawyers also dispute the assertion that the Confederate monument “is so offensive” to black people that “it constitutes and infringement of their constitutional rights,” and they appeal to another core civic value to defend the county’s decision to leave the memorial in place.
“One can easily imagine monuments erected to political leaders of various backgrounds being challenged by litigants when political climates change,” the county’s legal representative goes on to assert in one of her briefs to the court. “Our country is made up of people from varied and diverse backgrounds…making it very difficult for a county not to become subject to lawsuits if the only legal requirement for brining constitutional claims was that the plaintiff be ‘offended’ by government speech.”