The University of North Carolina has long had a building named for former KKK leader William Saunders. Public protest has finally moved to renaming the building “Carolina Hall” (which really, could you be more bland?). But the school’s Board of Trustees can’t go all the way and confront the past. UNC law professor Eric Muller:
The Board of Trustees decreed that the new “Carolina” Hall must feature a historical marker that “explains Mr. Saunders’ contributions to UNC and the State of North Carolina,” the circumstances that led an earlier Board of Trustees to name the building for him and the reason why the current board has chosen to remove his name.
What is noteworthy is the decision to perpetuate the celebration of William Saunders. His name comes down, but an explanation of his contributions to the university and the state goes up. Why does Saunders, gone for almost 125 years, continue to command this honor, an honor bestowed on the KKK leader by his grandchildren’s generation at a time when many were celebrating the “lost cause” of the Confederacy and enforcing Jim Crow? Why are we obliged, almost a century later, to perpetuate that generation’s decision to single him out for honor from among all Carolina alumni who had made contributions to the university and the state? Why must we still publicly venerate his “contributions” on the walls of a university building?
The trustees also required the university to adorn the renamed building with a plaque that reads as follows: “We honor and remember all those who have suffered injustices at the hands of those who would deny them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
At first glance, the statement is pleasing in its timeless generality. But therein lies the problem. The society that Saunders lived in, and the society of two generations later that honored him with the naming, did not practice oppression as a generality. Whites oppressed blacks in the service of white supremacy. Why can this not be said? Indeed, why remember generic “injustices” when what we are actually remembering is “racial persecution”?
The statement even lets the oppressors subtly off the hook. It refers to them as people who “would” deny others their rights. The conditional word “would” strips their persecution of its terrible effectiveness. The truth is not that white supremacy merely aimed to deny blacks their rights – and at times their lives. The truth is that white supremacy actually did those things. Why the equivocating use of the conditional verb?
That’s pretty ridiculous. Whether this all means the Board of Trustees is really perfectly happy with the politics of William Saunders is an open question and one that’s especially salient given the current racism of the North Carolina state government and the Moral Mondays movement that has tapped into the state’s civil rights traditions to resist it. In any case, it’s amazing that not naming a building after a Ku Klux Klan leader is still contentious in 2015. But then an open confrontation with slavery, white violence, and Jim Crow could get awful uncomfortable for people who are doing all they can to strip the franchise from as many African-Americans as possible in the present.