I have been taken down by a mob as a symbol of bigotry. That is not all of who I am. At 105 years old, I would like to speak for myself.
My dedication in 1913 reflected the ongoing conflicts of the American soul. There were multiple speeches. The last speaker, a moneyed racist individual, forever besmirched me with his now famous, hideous words; he only spoke because of his fat donation. The main speaker’s words, Gov. Locke, are barely remembered, but suggest a different role for me, the university and the state [my highlights]:
“Ours is the task to build a state worthy of all patriotism and heroic deeds,” he said, “a state that demands justice for herself and all her people, a state sounding with the music of victorious industry, a state whose awakened conscience shall lead the state to evolve from the forces of progress a new social order, with finer development for all conditions and classes of our people.”
Over my life, I have anchored the “front gate” to UNC-Chapel Hill, the oldest U.S. public university, a place of learning deliberately centered in the state to be its heart and soul, a state that has followed the governor’s challenge, in fits and starts, helping to forever change the South and the country for the better.
Our times now remind me of those of my birth – harsh divisiveness, fear, anger, pain.
Then, our country lay in the echoes of a bitter war that nearly ended the American experiment. “Silent” statues of combatants rose, without “ammunition,” symbolizing the need to move past conflict and killing – sadly, yet to be completely fulfilled.
This suggests that, at its core, the intent of my creation was healing. Now we should use the potential healing power of monument again to fulfill the University motto: “Lux Libertas” – Light and Liberty, not just for UNC, not just for Chapel Hill, but for our fragmented country.
Shunting me away is the easy way out and rewards the ideological lawlessness simmering in our land. My former presence must not be obliterated. My space should become a part of needed dialogue about the complexity of racism in fulfilling Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness for all, which for the world, is the meaning of “America.”
Taking or hiding away all evidence of my existence is admitting failure of our better angels, instead of enabling it with honest discourse. After all, as Terry Eagleton wrote: “a critical reflection on human values and principles should be central to everything that goes on in universities, not just to the study of Rembrandt or Rimbaud.”
This is not a new role for UNC or the ground where I was placed; UNC faced racial integration in 1950, the Speaker Ban, the death of MLK, the Vietnam War protests across the street. The gate to UNC needs to be widened into the mind, not narrowed by harsh emotions. There need to be permanent reminders, including of me, to symbolize our strained turning toward true respect and equality for all our citizens. Then, these pieces together can create a great space for open dialogue to bind and seal our wounds.
“When I walk along with two others, from at least one I will be able to learn.” — Confucius
Lester Levine lives in Chapel Hill.