The long fight to banish “Silent Sam,” forever, from the UNC-Chapel Hill campus took one encouraging step forward — and one troubling step back — as the fall semester ended.

In a positive development, a growing list of former and current Tar Heel athletes are calling for the Confederate memorial’s permanent removal.

They include former UNC basketball stars Jerry Stackhouse and Vince Carter, as well as Greensboro natives Brendan Haywood and Theo Pinson.

Among others who signed the Silent Sam petition: Harrison Barnes, Marvin Williams, Danny Green, Raymond Felton, John Henson, Isaiah Hicks, Justin Jackson, J.R. Reid, Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson.

And they expressed their thoughts in a statement that was as forceful as a dunk by Carter in his prime.

“We love UNC but now also feel a disconnect from an institution that was unwilling to listen to students and faculty who asked for Silent Sam to be permanently removed from campus,” the open letter reads.

“This is crisis time at Carolina,” the letter added, “and we feel that a clear shot has been fired. It hurts us.”

The letter echoes how many African-American UNC alumni, who cherished our educations and our experiences in Chapel Hill, feel about the controversy — and about the disappointing pressure brought to bear by the GOP-controlled legislature and some UNC Board of Governors members to return the divisive statue to its prominent perch near Franklin Street.

As were many Confederate memorials in the South, Sam was erected during the Jim Crow era as a symbol of white supremacy. And he was placed on public land with no regard to the sentiments of black taxpayers.

In particular, the letter opposed the ludicrous idea to build a $5.3 million structure elsewhere on campus to house the statue, which the UNC Board of Governors ultimately rejected on Dec. 14.

Time was when black athletes shied from controversy out of fear of losing their appeal to white fans and corporate marketers — when Fox News’ Laura Ingraham wouldn’t have had to tell them to “shut up and dribble.” Not anymore.

The letter also directly challenged current athletes and athletics officials to step up on the issue: “We would have liked to have heard the opinion of the athletic department leadership and coaches regarding this disposition of Silent Sam … especially in light of the high number of Black athletes who have participated on the basketball, football and track and field teams over the history of Carolina athletics. Their silence is very glaring and tells us a story.”

Obviously, the message hit its mark.

Head men’s basketball coach Roy Williams responded: “In my own personal belief, I think that it would be best for (Silent Sam) to not be here.”

And current Tar Heel players Garrison Brooks, Brandon Robinson, Sterling Manley and K.J. Smith have added their names to the letter.

In fact, at last count, the letter now includes 290 endorsements from former and current Tar Heel athletes, black and white from a variety of sports. (It would be nice to see Michael Jordan’s name on it.)

But basketball is a religion in Chapel Hill and when the Tar Heels’ hoops stars talk, people listen.

This changes everything. The battle may not be over, but it just took a decisive turn.

On another front, some faculty members and graduate teaching assistants at UNC-CH threatened to withhold final grades for their classes in opposition to Silent Sam.

As someone who is himself an adjunct instructor on a UNC campus, I’m not feeling this one as a protest tactic.

The faculty members’ and graduate assistants’ demands were sound enough: that the board of trustees withdraw its proposal “to build a separate ‘indoor location’ to house Silent Sam” and that “the Confederate monument never return to campus in any shape or form nor a center to its history be erected.”

But holding someone else’s grades hostage just seems tone-deaf, selfish and opportunistic — i.e., someone else is made to bear the sacrifice for your cause.

By contrast, I supported the teachers who took off one day from the job last year to rally in Raleigh for more support for public education. That involved one day of instruction, not a final grade.

At any rate, the threat was dropped following the Board of Governors vote, but this, to me, was a dumb move by presumably smart people. The athletes had a better playbook.

Make sure you never miss our editorials, letters to the editor and columnists. We’ll deliver the News & Record's Opinion page straight to your inbox.

Load comments