Alamance County leaders at odds over Confederate monument

Alamance County Sheriff's Office deputies sit positioned alongside the Alamance County Confederate Statue in the Historic Courthouse Square in downtown Graham the afternoon of Monday, June 29. Despite a statement issued by 56 local Alamance County leaders, including Mebane Mayor Ed Hooks and Mebane City Council members Patty Philipps, Jill Auditori, and Sean Ewing suggesting that the statue be relocated, the Alamance County Commissioners claimed on June 29 that they do not have the statutory authority to remove the statue. Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson has indicated that anyone who violate's Graham's decision to not allow anti-statue protests will be subject to arrest.  

As America goes through a historic time of awareness and change in regards to race relations, a debate is raging throughout Mebane and all of Alamance County in relation to the confederate monument at the Historic Courthouse Square in downtown Graham. 

The big question is whether or not the century-old statue should stay in place as other similar monuments are being taken down across the United States - either peacefully or through force by protestors. 

Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson has issued multiple statements over the past week on the issue, drawing praise from his considerable base of local supporters who have helped keep him in charge of the county’s law enforcement agency since 2002. At the same time, there has been an upswing in vocal criticism from those who oppose Johnson, who has run unopposed the last two election cycles after earning 60 percent of the countywide vote back in 2010. 

“Many questions, comments and concerns are being made regarding Sheriff Johnson’s position on the confederate memorial at the Alamance County Historic Courthouse in Graham, NC,” read a statement issued by Johnson’s office last week. “Sheriff Johnson understands the range of emotions on both sides of this issue.”

“If a lawful order is issued requiring the removal of the confederate memorial or any other property belonging to Alamance County, I will enforce that order,” the Sheriff stated. “Without a lawful order to remove the confederate memorial or any other property belonging to Alamance County, I am charged with the duty of protecting that property. The Alamance County Sheriff’s Office is also charged with protecting the constitutional rights of all who either agree or disagree with this emotional issue. The Alamance County Sheriff’s Office is further charged with the responsibility of protecting the safety of all no matter which side they may be on.”

“Let me make it clear, I will enforce all laws not inconsistent with the Constitution of the United States.” Sheriff Johnson concluded. 

Late last week, the Sheriff’s Office formed a cordon of ACSO vehicles in a tight circular perimeter around the Historic Courthouse when word leaked online of a potential mass gathering in downtown Graham to protest the confederate statue. 

On the afternoon of Friday, June 26, the Sheriff’s Office released a statement indicating that no permits had been granted for anti-statue protests in Graham, and that county law enforcement would arrest those who attempted to gather and protest without such a permit. 

“This is to advise that no permits to protest in the city of Graham, NC to include the Alamance County Courthouse have been granted, nor will be granted for the foreseeable future,” read the Sheriff’s Office statement. “Any group(s) attempting to protest without a permit, will be in violation and subject to arrest.”

Later, the Sheriff’s Office clarified its position, indicating that it was the City of Graham, and not the ACSO, that issues permits and makes decisions on whether to allow such gatherings around the local Courthouse. 

“To be clear, the Alamance County Sheriff's Office does not participate in the permitting process for the city of Graham, NC,” stated the Sheriff’s Office. “We are assisting the city of Graham, NC by providing them our social media platforms to help get the word out of their decision, so the public may be so informed.”

By the time the weekend rolled around, the Sheriff’s Office removed the cordon of vehicles surrounding the Historic Courthouse. A curfew instituted earlier in the week and reinstated on Friday was again terminated. By Sunday afternoon, there was a lone Alamance County Deputy Sheriff positioned directly underneath the confederate monument, monitoring the Courthouse Square area. On Monday, there were again ACSO officers positioned directly underneath the statue. 

Not long after the ACSO announcement regarding the decision not to issue protest permits in downtown Graham, there were calls for Sheriff Johnson to resign from numerous opponents and critics. A change.org petition had over 3,500 signatures as of the afternoon of June 29. 

“Sheriff Terry Johnson of Alamance County ran uncontested in 2018, and has proved to be unfit for his position in 2020 due to his rejection of the First Amendment,” read the change.org petition. “On June 26, 2020, the Alamance County Sheriff's Office posted on Facebook: "no permits to protest in the city of Graham, NC to include the Alamance County Courthouse have been granted, nor will be granted for the foreseeable future. Any group(s) attempting to protest without a permit, will be in violation and subject to arrest." (Source: Alamance County Sheriff's Office Facebook Page). This post directly violates our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, expression, and assembly. A sheriff who believes he is above the Constitution is unfit for his position and needs to be removed.”

“Once Sheriff Johnson has been removed from his office, there should be an election in either 2020 or 2021 to replace him, and in the meantime the person below him can fill in his position. Sheriff Johnson should not be allowed to fill the position of Alamance County Sheriff due to his violation of our First Amendment rights,” the petition concluded.

On Monday, a collection of 56 local municipal and county leaders, including Mebane Mayor Ed Hooks and three Mebane City Council members, issued a statement recommending that the confederate monument be relocated. 

“We as leaders in Alamance County recognize that we have a role to take the necessary and timely action needed to ensure that our county is an inclusive, equitable and welcoming place for people to thrive, conduct business, pursue an education, and live fulfilling lives,” read the statement. 

“The Confederate Monument in the Courthouse Square of Graham currently stands at the symbolic heart of our county at the epicenter of government. While this artifact is undeniably part of our history, for many in our community, it represents an ideology incompatible with equality. The history of Confederate monuments in the United States is complex. While many believe they exist simply to honor fallen soldiers, in actuality they were erected at a time of fervent white supremacy. The monument’s prominent location before a house of justice, an entity which has historically failed to serve our communities of color with equality, perpetuates this symbol as a barrier to the inclusion we aspire to achieve. As the municipalities and counties around us have taken action to remove their monuments, the Alamance County monument draws ever increasing notoriety and represents an increased potential for violence. Now is the time for decisive action to relocate this monument.”

“We are at a crossroads. As leaders, we want the county to move forward to a bright, prosperous future and not cling to a symbol that will inevitably hold us back. The county manager has wisely warned of the risks of deadly violence and recommended that the monument be relocated. We wholeheartedly agree and support urgent action.

The future of our community hangs in the balance. Bold and inclusive leadership is needed now more than ever. We stand together in this request and we invite other leaders to join us in this call to action.”

“We hereby call upon the Alamance County Commissioners and the City Council of Graham to take action to relocate the monument in a respectful and appropriate manner.  Relocation of the monument will remove the threat to the public safety that has been created by this symbol in the Courthouse Square of Graham.”

The list of local leaders who signed the proclamation include Ian Baltutis, Mayor, City of Burlington, Lenny Williams, Mayor, Town of Gibsonville, Carissa Graves-Henry, Mayor, Town of Green Level, Jim Powell, Connie Book, President, Elon University, Leo Lambert, President Emeritus, Elon University, Patsy Simpson, School Board Member, Alamance Burlington School System, Steve Van Pelt, School Board Member, Alamance Burlington School System, Brian Feeley, School Board Member, Alamance Burlington School System, Wayne Beam, School Board Member, Alamance Burlington School System, Kathy Colville, Quinn Ray, Alderman, Town of Elon, Emily Sharpe, Alderman, Town of Elon, Doug Williams, CEO, Buckner Companies, Bill Scott Jr., President, Alamance Foods, Inc, LeAndra N. Ratliff, Chair-Elect, Alamance Chamber of Commerce, Jill Auditori, Mayor Pro-Tem, City of Mebane, Sean C. Ewing, Councilmember, City of Mebane, Patty Philipps, Councilmember, City of Mebane, President Barrett Brown, Alamance NAACP, Jim Bryan, President, Fairystone Fabrics, Preston Hammock, Lavern Delaney, Mandy Eaton, Laura Vail, Griffin McClure, Green & McClure Furniture, Jason Cox, The Monroe Companies, Lee Kimrey, Lee Kimrey Construction, LLC, Mayor Pro-Tem Kathy Hykes, City of Burlington, Rev. Anita Thompson, Presiding Elder, Western NC Conference - AME Church, Rev. Tamara Kersey-Brown, Wayman Chapel AME, & Secretary, Alamance Pride, Rev. Gwendolyn Benjamin, Sr. Pastor, Wayman Chapel AME, Rev. Jay Kennett, Rev. Beth Kennett, Ken Smith, President, Alamance Pride, Laurin Kier, Incoming treasurer, Alamance Pride, Gabrielle Legrand, At-large board member, Alamance Pride, John Currin, Yun Boylston, MD, Lisa Pennington, Past Chair, Alamance Chamber of Commerce, Mark Gordon , Rev. Dr. Bridgette Gloster, Senior Pastor, Springdale AME, Burlington, Rev. Dr. Clay Gloster Jr., Associate Pastor, Springdale AME Burlington, Pastor A. Offord Carmichael, Jr. - Clover Garden, Burlington NC, Mac Williams, President, Alamance Chamber of Commerce , David K Mertz, MD, David Carter, Allen Tate Realtors, Allison Gant, Chair, Alamance Burlington School System, Tony Rose, School Board Member, Alamance Burlington School System, Kristen Page, MD, Megan Ray, outgoing treasurer, Alamance Pride, Rodney Wyatt-Younger, at-large board member, Alamance Pride, Eric Henry, President, TS Designs, Bob Byrd, Former Commissioner, Alamance County Commissioners, and Catherine Smith, President, Martin Luther King Jr. Coalition of Alamance.

In response to the statement, the Alamance County Commissioners issued the following announcement the afternoon of June 29.  

“County attorney Clyde Albright has advised the Alamance County Board of Commissioners that, pursuant to state and federal law, Alamance County does not have the legal authority to move the Confederate Veterans Memorial at Courthouse Square. The monument in Graham is an object of remembrance as defined by North Carolina General Statute 100-2.1, which gives it different legal status than a statue of an individual person or a commemoration of a battle or event. The county manager neglected to obtain information about the legality of his opinion before he offered it.”

“The drafting and announcement of this open letter is troubling. Very few of the people who participated in this statement (four of the fifty-six) have contacted any one of the five commissioners in the past few months to discuss their concerns about the monument. We have learned that at least some of those whose support for this letter was sought were told, “Don’t tell the commissioners” about the effort to draft it. Mayor Baltutis waited until 9:40 am on Monday, twenty minutes before his press conference was to begin, to inform Chair Galey, which prevented her from being able to attend.”

“One may ask, why would the authors of this letter not want the commissioners to know that it was being drafted and circulated? Why was it done in secret and then unveiled at a press conference? This would lead an observer to believe that this “call to action” is political in nature. Its true purpose would not appear to be to persuade the commissioners, but to ambush them in as public a manner as possible.”

“We do not doubt that those who signed the letter are sincere in their beliefs and hope to see the county find a resolution to this difficult challenge. The best way to seek a resolution is not by operating in secret, drawing up in opposing lines, and engaging with the press. Alamance County deserves leaders who are willing to reach out and communicate with one another.”