Did Chatham County just blow it?

Posted 8/16/19

Did Chatham County just blow its chance to be a shining example of creative and cooperative problem-solving in an increasingly divided, divisive culture?

Yes and no.

We say “yes” because we …

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Did Chatham County just blow it?

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Did Chatham County just blow its chance to be a shining example of creative and cooperative problem-solving in an increasingly divided, divisive culture?

Yes and no.

We say “yes” because we were sorely, sorely disappointed in the statement released last week by the Winnie Davis Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The UDC, through its president and spokesman, Barbara Pugh, told the county (through a letter to commission Chairman Mike Dasher) that the Confederate monument in front of the Chatham County Historic Courthouse — which it says is a gift from the UDC to the county made in 1907, and therefore, county property — “should not be illegally moved or altered.”

Further, the UDC — saying it had the backing of the state organization — took the position that it would be “inappropriate that we re-imagine the statue in any way.” The group asked the county to reaffirm that the statue is protected property, and indicated that if Chatham County did anything otherwise, legal redress by the UDC would be forthcoming.

“This,” Pugh’s letter said, “would be the ultimate conclusion of our civil discourse to make the statue respected and secure.”

Walking away from the table is not an adequate conclusion. By pulling the plug on its agreement “to meet, cooperate and work together in good faith” with Chatham County about “reimagining” the monument, and kicking the ball back to the county, the UDC perhaps has guaranteed that any upcoming discourse about the “Our Confederate Heroes” statue will be far from civil.

You’ll remember that back in May, the commission board and the UDC created a memorandum of understanding in which they agreed to “to meet, cooperate and work together in good faith” about “reimagining” the monument. Something happened in a July 17 meeting between Pugh and Dasher that caused the MOU to be abandoned. And now, with the UDC extracting itself from the dialogue, it appears — and we hope we’re wrong here — that we’ve collectively lost an opportunity to do something special and rare: hear truly collaborative dialogue and reconciliation around an emotionally complex issue.

It’s hard to say what caused the UDC to pull away. Dasher and his board may address that at the commissioners’ Aug. 19 meeting, but Dasher perhaps provided a hint when he told the News + Record last week that this is “just not a conversation everyone is ready to have.”

Obviously. And therein lies the problem. There’s no question the conversation between the Daughters and the county was a difficult one, and the emotion and complexity of the issue — the future of the “Our Confederate Heroes” statue and the extreme feelings it inspires — is fraught with legal and emotional issues.

But at the same time, the two parties had a clarion call for action. The MOU and the July 17 meeting weren’t a time for excuses or grandstanding (not that we’re claiming that occured), but rather a time to be fully committed to the process and to the goal of a resolution.

Albert Einstein famously said that the problems we face today can’t be solved with the same level of thinking that created them. We’re not sure whether there’s a more appropriate mindset to apply in this case: the status quo hasn’t presented a workable solution, so some kind of “re-imagining” was a major prerequisite here. In ending the conversation in such a way, the UDC seems to be forcing the commissioners’ hand on the question — guaranteeing more gnashing of teeth, more upsetness, more controversy, more raised voices.

We hoped that Pugh and Dasher could have started their discussion with points of agreement, to find areas on which they could shake hands. Given the tenor of the discourse at the commissioners’ public hearing on the issue back in April, the two could have set an example for the rest of us by working harder on what Puritan theologian John Owen described as “the principle of forbearance” than the opposing voices did that night in trying to convince the “other side” about how wrong they were.

At the outset here, we said “yes” and “no” on the question of whether an opportunity had been squandered. We’re discouraged, but we’re not giving up on the idea of creative collaboration. It’s an art form, one that requires both sides to dip their brushes into a mixture of humility and grace. We hope the parties can go back to the canvas again and give Chatham County something we can all frame — and be proud in doing so.


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