Replace Confederate statue with Dean Smith

UNC’s legendary Dean Smith did more than coach basketball. He represents the progress North Carolina has made over the generations.
UNC’s legendary Dean Smith did more than coach basketball. He represents the progress North Carolina has made over the generations. File photo

The furor over removing Confederate memorials offers North Carolina an opportunity to tell a new, more positive story about our state and our values. One modest proposition: We should replace North Carolina’s statue of a Confederate veteran in the U.S. Capitol with a new statue of the late, legendary college basketball coach Dean Smith.

Under the law, each U.S. state is allowed to select two statues of deceased luminaries to represent it in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Our state is currently represented by two former governors: Charles Aycock and Zebulon Vance. Aycock was born too late to serve the Confederacy, but was a vicious segregationist. In 2015, North Carolina passed a law to replace him with Billy Graham, whenever our Heavenly Father calls that great evangelist home.

The statue of Governor Vance, however, is not yet slated to be replaced. Vance served in the Confederate Army, and was elected to two terms as Confederate governor of the state during the Civil War. (He also served as governor and senator once the Union was restored.)

Despite his post-war accomplishments as a leader in education and religious tolerance, Governor Vance is simply not the best choice to represent North Carolina and our values in the 21st century.

Coach Dean Smith is.

Smith did not just coach teams that won lots and lots of basketball games during his 36 years at the University of North Carolina. He did not just coach teams to two national championships and 11 NCAA Final Four appearances. He did not just nurture and teach generations of young men – including the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan. He did more than that.

Despite being born in Kansas, Coach Smith embodied the values of the state of North Carolina. Hard work, determination and humility were his watchwords, as they are for so many North Carolinians. A religious man, he recruited the first black basketball player to get a scholarship in Chapel Hill, Charlie Scott, and personally led efforts to desegregate the town.

He did these things before he was a legendary coach. He did them shortly after he himself was burned in effigy after a losing basketball season. He did them because they were right.

Former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called for all former statues of former Confederates to be removed from the Capitol (though she did nothing on the issue when she was Speaker herself). That is not her decision to make. It is not the decision of anyone in Washington, D.C. Who represents North Carolina in the U.S. Capitol is a decision for the people of North Carolina – whether those representatives are flesh and blood or carved stone.

This is an opportunity to replace a figure from the musty past, marred by a legacy of slavery, racism and rebellion with a new man, who represents the great progress our people and our state have made, and the love and respect we have for all people. I hope we seize it.

Steel, a Durham native and 1999 UNC graduate, was a senior adviser to Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign and press secretary for House Speaker John Boehner. mike.steel@gmail.com