The rise and fall of Silent Sam
Carl Fox had had enough. Hearing the acrimony and hatred spewed after the toppling of “Silent Sam,” the senior resident Superior Court judge for Orange and Chatham counties felt he needed to weigh in.
So on Sept. 3, Fox posted on his Facebook page a lengthy manifesto on the meaning to African-Americans of Confederate symbols such as the Confederate flag and the Silent Sam monument on the UNC campus, toppled by protestors on Aug. 20.
Whenever he saw Silent Sam, Fox wrote — or the statue of a Confederate soldier on the grounds of the Chatham County Courthouse where he holds court — “I am reminded of KKK rallies and banners, some that occurred in Chatham County, ‘Jim Crow’ laws and other such indignities to former slaves and African-Americans in general. They remind me of the racist past. No country I have ever visited puts more emphasis on race than ours. None!”
The post goes on to recount the legacy of white supremacy and violent racism in the era of the KKK and the struggle for civil rights in North Carolina that he witnessed as an African-American descendent of slaves growing up in segregated North Carolina.
I recently heard Fox discuss that history, as well as the race-tinged story still evolving on the UNC campus, at a gathering of friends in Chapel Hill. He recalled when the town of Smithfield was marked by billboards at each end of town declaring it to be Klan Country. (I remember that too, along with billboards urging “Impeach Earl Warren.”)
He recalled as a young assistant district attorney being driven to court by state troopers using the N word. “I didn’t say anything because they were driving and had guns,” he half-joked.
I asked Fox what he thought of the indignant protestations about “rule of law” and mob rule” invoked by people – including officialdom at UNC – critical of the protesters who brought down the statue. He said “mob rule” is no more accurate as a description of the Silent Sam removal than the protests, marches and other now-venerated acts of civil disobedience during the Civil Rights movement.
As for “rule of law,” he said, it is not diminished by the peaceful protest that resulted in removal of the statue. Protesters have been arrested (including the granddaughter of a former UNC chancellor), and they presumably will go through the legal process and will face consequences for their actions.
John McGowan, a UNC English professor, published a thoughtful commentary on the Rule of Law issue: “This was a principled and disciplined collective act of civil disobedience,” he wrote in a Sept. 2 op-ed in The Herald-Sun. “Civil disobedience entails breaking the law. It does so when the established modes of redress for a wrong have proved unavailing, and it does so in the name of a good that it claims the law is flouting.”
Many “Sam” defenders have been critical of the handling of the protests by UNC and Chapel Hill police. Fox said they had acted professionally and with restraint, similar to how they manage much larger crowds at Halloween and basketball celebrations.
Since his Silent Sam post, Fox also has taken to Facebook to issue thoughts on mob rule, and whether the names of Carrboro and UNC’s Carr Building (named for the white supremacist who spoke at the dedication of Silent Sam) should be changed.
Given the traditional low public profile of judges, why has Fox decided to air his views so publicly? One reason, he said, was his recent struggle with bone marrow cancer (successfully treated). Being face to face with death, he said, makes you stand up for what is important in life.
“This is something you’re supposed to do,” he said. “We’re living on borrowed time.”
The other reason was sympathy for the protesters who are bearing the brunt of public anger over the Silent Sam removal. So-called people in authority – the UNC president, the Board of Governors, UNC Trustees, legislators — have embraced the mob rule trope. Fox said he thought it was important for other leaders to show that white supremacy is not just a fringe issue for so-called radical campus extremists.
In his post, Fox wrote that defenders of Confederate symbols cannot pretend that secession over slavery was not an act of treason: “You also cannot try to disguise it as a war over ‘states’ rights’ and build memorials in their dishonorable honor and place them on pedestals on public property, like we all want to remember them or need them to remind us that you wish the outcome had been different and pay tribute to the Confederate loss. “
Some of us have found our voices and are simply not going quietly “into the good night.” Not Judge Fox, for sure.
To see Carl Fox’s Facebook post on Silent Sam, go to: https://tinyurl.com/y8d79xvn
Ted Vaden is a retired newspaper editor who lives in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.