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UNC graduates who were active in Civil Rights Movement lend voices to Silent Sam case

walter jackson
Walter Jackson, '67, pictured in front of UNC's worldwide landmark, the Old Well. Walter Jackson is a member of the UNC Black Pioneers, UNC alumni who marched on Franklin Street during the Civil Rights Movement. Photo courtesy of Walter Jackson.

The same alumni who marched on Franklin Street during the Civil Rights Movement — the UNC Black Pioneers — are now partnering with a new generation of current students in pursuit of the same goal. 

“We believe we should be able to have pride in our University just as anyone can have pride in their alma mater,” 1967 graduate Walter Jackson said. 

A group of UNC graduates plans to submit an amicus brief to the Orange County court system by Wednesday in support of the civil rights group attempting to reverse the Silent Sam settlement. 

The brief— a formal letter advocating for the civil rights group — will be filed in anticipation of the appeal hearing on Feb 12. Judge Allen Baddour ruled in December that the civil rights group’s motion lacked standing but agreed to hold an appeal hearing. 

The signatories, members of the UNC Black Pioneers and a wider group of alumni, aim to express their support for the student and faculty partnered with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. 

The Committee has called to block the Board of Governors’ $2.5 million trust deal with the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Some of those involved would like to see the money returned to the University in full, and the monument destroyed as a public safety hazard according to North Carolina Monuments Law. 

Mel Watt, former director of The Federal Housing Finance Agency under President Obama and a 1967 UNC graduate, said he hopes that having support from over 70 distinguished alumni will help to give weight to the interveners' case.  

“I’m offended by the notion that we would be colluding with a white supremacist organization, and that we would pay them money and that it would stand,” Watt said. 

He said he feels hopeful Baddour will rule against the SCV. 

Watt said he is involved in the case both as a UNC graduate and as a UNC Black Pioneer. The Pioneers captures the group of Black students who graduated from UNC during the first 20 years of integration at the University.

Otto White, class of 1965, said he was active in civil rights demonstrations while at UNC. 

“So many of the issues I was dealing with in the 1960s are still issues that exist in 2020,” he said. 

White said he was appalled by the BOG’s announcement of the SCV settlement. 

“I just had to speak up,” he said. “That was wrong. I had no choice.”

Monuments like Silent Sam and actions like the BOG deal, White said, are constant reminders of hate and discrimination for African-American citizens. 

Watt said the Sons of Confederate Veterans have misrepresented the history of the statue. He said he sees no standing for the SCV’s case and that the group never owned the statue.

He said the court can’t base the approval of an agreement on false statements. The SCV, he said, puts forward a misrepresentation of the genesis of the money that paid for the monument. 

“Money is money,” Watt said. “It’s not like a tangible object. Once it becomes part of the University coffer it can be used for constructive purposes or destructive purposes. We believe this is a destructive purpose.”

If the decision cannot be reversed, White said, the University must provide equal or greater funding toward scholarships for students of color. 

“Oftentimes, issues like this are forgotten and fall under the rug,” White said. “But $2.5 million would go a long way in dispelling hate.”

White said he thinks alumni — especially Black alumni — need to play a role in projecting the University as an institution for all people. The monument itself is not the problem, he said, but represents larger issues of racism and exclusion.

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“It’s only a monument," he said. “There should be more actions to right history.”