Commission puts off decision on moving North Carolina Confederate monuments

RALEIGH, North Carolina (WTVD) -- The North Carolina Historical Commission has postponed any decision on a request by Governor Roy Cooper to move three Confederate memorials that have stood on North Carolina's old Capitol grounds for over a century to a Civil War battle site until March 2018.

Governor Cooper wants to relocate the monuments to Bentonville Battlefield, which is about 50 miles south of Raleigh. The memorials include a 75-foot-tall obelisk remembering all of the state's Confederate dead. There are also two smaller statutes.

Cooper announced his plans in the weeks following a violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the subsequent toppling of a local monument in Durham.

"This is kind of decision that we've been asked to make is a precedent-setting decision," said North Carolina Historical Commission Chair Dr. Mary Lynn Bryan. "We're really not used to, as a body, having issues that are this deep and this problematic coming before us in such a short period without having the opportunity to look carefully at the ramifications of what we're doing."

Commissioner Dr. Valerie Johnson added, "The language that we're going to use is going to be language for generations going forward."

But North Carolina's top Republican pushed back against the idea Thursday. Senate leader Phil Berger released a letter he sent to Cooper in which he says: "I do not think an impulsive decision to pull down every Confederate monument in North Carolina is wise, that attempting to rewrite history is a fool's errand."

Berger went on to call Cooper's move, "more political theater than a principled stand."

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State and local governments across the South are debating and reconsidering the placement of Confederate symbols following last month's violence and the 2015 shootings of black parishioners at a South Carolina church.

"Our Civil War history is important, but it belongs in textbooks and museums - not a place of allegiance on our Capitol grounds," Cooper wrote.

But a 2015 state law approved by the Republican-controlled General Assembly prohibits their removal from public property without legislative approval and restricts relocation. The law says the 11-member commission can relocate a monument to a site "of similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability, and access."

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A Cooper Cabinet secretary petitioning the commission says Bentonville complies with the relocation requirement and would put the monuments in historical context.

Republicans say the reasons being given for the relocation and the Bentonville battle site don't meet the law's requirements. In his letter, Berger told Cooper that any decision to approve the relocation would likely be overturned in court with litigation.

"The spirit and the letter of the law do not allow for the granting of the governor's request," a memo from Speaker Tim Moore and other House Republicans reads.

The March 1865 battle at Bentonville marked the last full-scale action of the Civil War in which a Confederate army mounted a tactical offensive.

The monuments join others that currently stand on the city square in downtown Raleigh where the old Capitol building was completed in 1840. The legislature met there until 1963. Cooper's office is now inside. A monument on the square to honor the contributions of black North Carolina residents is being planned.

The Associated Press contributed to this report
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