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NC lawmakers want more monuments honoring Civil Rights leaders

A bronze statue of Martin Luther King Jr. stands in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.
Roger Winstead
A bronze statue of Martin Luther King Jr. stands in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers has reintroduced a bill that would start the process of building more public monuments dedicated to civil rights icons.

It sets aside $500,000 for the state's African American Heritage Commission to come up with recommendations for events or people to commemorate along the North Carolina Civil Rights Trail.

WUNC's Will Michaels spoke with one of the bill's co-sponsors, Republican State Representative Jon Hardister of Guilford County, about which icons might be included and where.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

WILL MICHAELS: Who do you think could be included in these monuments?

JON HARDISTER: Charlotte Hawkins Brown was an African American lady that founded [Palmer Memorial Institution] that was a preparatory school for minority students.

Then we have Henry Frye, who was the first Black chief justice of the state Supreme Court. He's another person we could possibly honor using this program.

And then Clarence Henderson, a good friend of mine, who was one of the NC A&T students who sat in at [Woolworth's] lunch counter in 1960.

So that's the objective of this bill, to look at the entirety of the state of North Carolina, how the different locations, the different icons have played a role in the civil rights movement and find a way to honor them, and to, you know, promote our history.

MICHAELS: What makes you think it will pass this session when it didn't last session?

HARDISTER: What happened last time is really we just had so much going on with COVID, and all these other factors related to the budget. We're getting pulled in many different directions. And I think it just kind of got lost in the shuffle, so to speak.

I don't think there's any opposition to it. It's just that here's the thing, anytime you have a session, and you have a state budget [of] $27 billion, there's so many different factors out there, and so many different good ideas that get brought to the table. It's hard to get everything across the finish line. But now we're in a situation where we can take a look at all these different things and try to find a way to get it done.

MICHAELS: So, do you think it has more to do with the legislative calendar and agenda rather than the ongoing conversation related to Confederate monuments? Because, in 2018, the State Historical Commission rejected Governor Roy Cooper's petition to remove Confederate monuments from the State Capitol grounds. And some members of that commission suggested, as an alternative, to simply build more monuments to African Americans. Does that still play a role in this conversation?

HARDISTER: Yes, I think it does. Yeah, I think that's important, what precipitated this legislation. You probably want to speak to Representative Lofton about that.

MICHAELS: That's the bill's other co-sponsor, Democratic Representative Brandon Lofton of Mecklenburg County.

HARDISTER: That's something that he brought to my attention. And given that this is a Southern state that has certain Confederate aspects of its history, this was a way to balance that out. And I thought that was a great idea. And again, the state played a major role in the civil rights movement.

When you get into the Confederate history, that's certainly a sensitive topic. Now, what I believe, since you brought it up, is that I think Confederate monuments on public property should be moved to a historical location, like maybe the Civil War Museum is an example.

I don't really believe Confederate monuments ought to be on public property. I think they need to be in a museum or a place where they have the proper historical context. But that's a larger conversation that we have to have outside the scope of this legislation.

This legislation is just looking at our civil rights icons and figuring out how do we promote them and teach the history that they represent so we can all learn about the importance of civil rights and human dignity and things like that.

Will Michaels is WUNC's Weekend Host and Reporter.
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