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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

A Little Real Talk About Silent Sam

Tommy Tomlinson

“Duty is the sublimest word in the English language.”

If you’ve studied the Civil War, you might recognize that as a quote from Robert E. Lee. If you were a student at the University of North Carolina, you might recognize it as part of the plaque underneath the statue of a Confederate soldier known as Silent Sam.

Silent Sam, who was taken down by protesters in 2018, managed to make noise again last week. A judge threw out an agreement between UNC and the Sons of Confederate Veterans to settle Silent Sam’s fate. The Sons of Confederate Veterans would have taken the statue and put it somewhere other than Chapel Hill, and in exchange UNC would have put $2.5 million into a trust to relocate the statue.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy originally put up some of the money to build Silent Sam more than 100 years ago, but somehow the Sons of Confederate Veterans got involved when money started floating around, which is I guess a financial version of manspreading.

Either way, the judge’s ruling voids the settlement and throws the fate of Silent Sam into limbo once again. So as everybody tries to figure out what to do next, it might be good to go back and think about that quote: “Duty is the sublimest word in the English language.”

Here’s something you should know about that quote: It’s fake. It comes from a letter Robert E. Lee supposedly wrote that turned out to be forged.

But not only is it fake, it’s false. Duty to the wrong cause isn’t sublime. It can be monstrous. And the fact is that duty to the cause of slavery broke apart the United States, led to the deaths of 600,000 American soldiers, and put the South so far behind the rest of the country that in some ways, 150 years later, we still have not caught up.

That’s the legacy the Confederacy left behind. And those of us who were born and raised in the South have to reckon with it.

So if the Sons of Confederate Veterans want to resurrect Silent Sam somewhere, fine. But then UNC should take that $2.5 million and buy the plot of land right next door. That would be a fine place for an exhibit that explains the agony and sorrow the Civil War brought upon all of us, starting with slaves and their descendants.

That’s what a fair resolution to the Silent Sam situation would look like. You might even call it our duty.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.