The Legacy of the Confederacy at UNC-Chapel Hill and Why Student Workers are Striking Against It

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TA’s at UNC Chapel Hill are refusing to turn in final grades to protest a plan to re-house the confederate monument to “Silent Sam”, which was torn down last August.

Image by Chuck Liddy: CLIDDY@NEWSOBSERVER.COM

An Emblem of Hatred at UNC

In the continuing struggle to resist Neo-Confederatism in the South, teaching assistants and faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are withholding final grades in protest of the school’s plan to re-house the confederate monument known as “Silent Sam” that protestors tore down last August. In an email to the campus, Chancellor Carol L. Folt stated that the purpose of the re-housing decision is “to [create] a truthful and full historical contextualization both of our university and the Confederate monument,” but the university’s relationship to and ongoing complicity in white supremacy is much more complex and widespread than one monument. Silent Sam is only one emblem of UNC’s confederate history and continued pride. To discuss the “full historical contextualization” of the university’s support of white supremacy, UNC-Chapel Hill need only turn to the history of their own mascot—the Tar Heel.

According to UNC-Chapel Hill’s own Athletics Home Page, the origin of the nickname “Tar Heel” has two major uses in the state’s history. First, so-called “workers” (slaves) distilling turpentine in North Carolina’s naval stores industry typically worked barefoot, and often ended the day with their heels caked in tar. Again, according to UNC-CH’s own website, “To call someone a “rosin heel” or “tar heel” was to imply they that they worked in a lowly trade.” Second, during the Civil War, Confederate soldiers from North Carolina turned the moniker into a badge of honor, expressing their state pride within the broader Confederate army. In this etymological sense, to be a Tar Heel is to deride black people and to celebrate the Confederacy. The history of Silent Sam only further reinforces this association.

Silent Sam was unveiled in 1913 — the height of the Jim Crow era in the South — at an event headlined by Julian Carr, an avowed KKK supporter. In his speech, he proudly tells the student body how he “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds” only a hundred yards from where he stood, describing it as a “pleasing duty.” Carr also suggests that “if every State of the South had done what North Carolina did without a murmur [sic], always faithful to its duty whatever the groans of the victims…the political geography of America would have been re-written.” It is precisely these “groans of the victims” that we must listen to.

Silent Sam was designed to represent not an individual Confederate soldier, but all of them— particularly the UNC students who enlisted. This is an important distinction within the overall discussion of Confederate Monuments because the typical argument in favor of the monuments—one of respecting the historical significance of certain figures—does not apply in this case. There never was a Silent Sam; Silent Sam exists purely to be a symbol of the Confederacy and all that it stood for.

Chancellor Folt has recently been quoted as saying that Silent Sam sat, before the community forcibly removed it, “at the front door” of the university. This was not done randomly, but rather as part of a specific program to enshrine the legacy of the Confederacy at the university. This program, as can clearly be seen through any analysis of the conditions at UNC-Chapel Hill, has been a success. To use just one example: UNC-Chapel Hill has been a national leader in the exploitation of so-called “student athletes,” holding one of the worst records for graduating black male student athletes while relying on them for much of the university’s income. Additionally, the university has also created several so-called “paper classes” intended to rob student athletes of the education that they claim to be providing as payment for the labor that they are extracting from them. Indeed, it is surely not by accident that a large portion of these paper classes were placed within the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. The two-fold assumption that African and Afro-American Studies matters so little that the department can afford to sacrifice real, rigorous coursework in this field for the benefit of the university’s bottom line and that black athletes would—obviously—want to study it is racist and speaks to the thinking of the university.

Another monument is hidden “off to the side and behind Silent Sam,” called the Unsung Founders Memorial. This memorial is a stone bench intended to honor the people of color whose work contributed to the founding of the university. The inscription is carved into the seat of the bench itself, but DocSouth, a project by the university library, acknowledges that the design of the monument makes it unlikely that most users or passerby even notice the inscription. The design also features the figures of Black and Brown workers bracing themselves as they uphold the weight of the bench seat. Although the intention of the monument was to honor these “unsung founders,” the bench effectually forces their effigies to continue laboring in service of a predominantly white campus. It is still predominantly Black people who hold up the university: serving the food, tending to the grounds and cleaning the dorms for meager wages, while members of the almost exclusively white administration earns six-figure yearly salaries. And like this monument, the labor of Black workers is “hidden” and ignored.

The Strike

On December 4, 2018, anti-racist protestors issued a call to strike in light of Chancellor Folt’s proposal to the Board of Governors, which proposed a new building—financed by an increase in student fees—to house Silent Sam and a strengthened campus police force for the control and surveillance of student and community protestors. The organizers—many of whom are teaching assistants—called for all TAs at UNC-Chapel Hill to withhold grades on all final exams and assignments until their demands are met. These demands include not just a withdrawal of the plan to rehouse Silent Sam but also an abolishment of grad student fees, increased wages for all on-campus workers, and dental insurance for graduate students, among others. On December 6, 2018, the demands were revised so that grades will be released after the proposal to the Board of Governors is withdrawn and the Board of Governors holds listening sessions “in good faith with the campus community,” but action will continue into following semesters until the other demands are met.

It is important to understand the recent context of this strike, as it comes barely a month after the UNC Honor Court trial of Maya Little, the PhD student who climbed Silent Sam in April 2018 and doused the statue with red paint (rumored to be mixed with her own blood). Over 6,000 people signed a petition asking the Honor Court to drop their charges against Little, but the court declined. After learning that one of the selected Honor Court panelists, supposedly a jury of her peers, was an open supporter of Silent Sam and had previously called anti-racist protestors “petulant children” and had insulted one of Little’s witnesses, Little walked out of her hearing on the grounds that she was not being granted a fair trial. The court sentenced her with an official letter of warning and 18 hours of community service.

Little has been undeterred by this attempt to suppress her and is one of the leading voices calling for the TA strike. As of December 7, 2018, an estimated 79 instructors had joined the protest, withholding over 2,000 grades, about 10% of all grades at the school. This strike has lead to the university increasing their tactics to suppress dissent including the granting of a protest permit to Neo-Confederates on the day of UNC’s winter graduation. These tactics are, like the prosecution of Little, intended to intimidate students and workers into compliance with the undemocratic decision making of the Board of Governors. It is safe to assume that, if the strike continues, the university will resort to more forceful measures. Part of the proposal to the Board of Governors includes $2,000,000 per year for a 40-person “mobile force” of campus police to “attend” protests. One can only imagine what kind of violence such a specially designated force might enact on protestors.

Political Implications

Organizers of the resistance to the remounting of Silent Sam are organizing not just within one group or movement, and through this unity, they have built significant power. In recent days, over 30 different student groups have signed on to support, including groups that typically find themselves in opposition to one another like the UNC Hillel and UNC Students for Justice in Palestine. Left groups, like the NC Piedmont branch of the DSA have provided tactical support to the campaign against Silent Sam for months including protecting the organizers from counter-protestors, joining in an occupation of the monument, and providing court support for Maya Little. This collaboration between the university and the larger community is important because it represents a class unity between students and the larger working class, a collaboration that has been difficult to build in the Triangle region of North Carolina, an area populated by several wealthy, historically white universities and research parks populated by middle-class workers from outside the state, set among several communities of color.

The inclusion of alumni and student athletes alongside graduate student workers and faculty is also an important political development. Alumni are a powerful force at any university, and they hold a specific power to pressure university administration that neither students nor faculty hold. By specifically recruiting alumni to join in the movement, the organizers have added a weapon to their arsenal. More substantially, the inclusion of student athletes in the movement places them justly on the same level as graduate student workers. Student athletes are student workers and should be viewed as such by any meaningful student movement. As student workers at UNC-Chapel Hill build power through resisting Silent Sam, they should begin to turn their eyes towards the other ways that white supremacy has infected their workplace—a major plank of which is the abuse and exploitation of student athletes.

As the struggle against the legacy of the Confederacy across the United States continues, it is important to understand that Southern institutions cannot be separated from their Confederate legacy without class struggle. Confederate monuments are not simply an anachronism; they are a key part of an ongoing program to ensure white supremacy in the South. There is a reason that the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, one of the largest gatherings of fascists in modern American history, occurred in defense of a Confederate monument. There is a reason that far-right leaders from Donald Trump to David Duke are fervent about keeping the monuments up. There is a reason that UNC-Chapel Hill is reinstating their monument.

One puts up monuments for real, political reasons. The UNC-Chapel Hill workers, students, and alumni are locked in a struggle that has larger implications for the Left. The right wing is on the rise and neo-fascists are emboldened. To fight it, we must build broad working-class unity: a united front. What we see beginning to occur in Chapel Hill should be watched to see if it forms a good blueprint for the way forward. Student workers, students, student athletes, alumni, staff, and faculty are joining with the community and socialist organizations to enact a strategy of resistance. As the strike goes on, it will be important to see how the university’s administration escalates their tactics to break the strike and how the situation resolves. As socialists, we must have vocal solidarity with the strikers because they are locked in a class struggle that spans generations.

Tear Down the Statues…and White Supremacy Too”

A rallying cry that has sprung up around the anti-Confederate Monument organizing is “tear them all down.” However, what we can see from UNC-Chapel Hill is that, even when you literally tear down the monuments themselves, you will never get anywhere if you have not torn down the system that allows the monuments to stand in the first place. Activists will tear them down, and then the capitalists will put them back up. As socialists, we must fight to tear down the systems of white supremacy in addition to the symbols of white supremacy.

The struggle that is occurring at UNC-Chapel Hill right now is against the forces that allow for white supremacy to remain at universities, forces which are scared by the strike. This fear can be seen in the escalation of suppression through the creation of two million dollar a year anti-protest force. The strikers are winning and, if they maintain unity and do not compromise, they have a real opportunity to get their demands met by the university administration and meaningfully increase the power of workers at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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