Of Monuments and Memorials: ‘Silent Sam’ and Other Disquieting Reminders of the American Past

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Case Study: ‘Silent Sam’

A swarm of angry protestors tore down a towering bronze effigy of a Confederate soldier at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 2018. The statue, named “Silent Sam,” had loomed over campus for more than a century. The downfall of Silent Sam sparked backlash on campus, but also struck a chord across the country, once again bringing the conversation on Confederate monuments to the forefront.

The incident became a flashpoint in an ongoing debate about public memorials that call up America’s problematic past. Proponents of tearing down Confederate statues and other remembrances of prominent racists say the memorials serve as reminders of a painful past; opponents, meanwhile, argue for the historical and cultural value of these markers. From debates on college campuses to the deadly 2017 riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, the controversy over Confederate monuments has fueled uproar in myriad communities, especially in the American South. But perhaps even more fundamentally, the felling of Confederate monuments encapsulates the lasting tension between Free Speech and the dark side of history. 

Click here to familiarize yourself with the circumstances surrounding “Silent Sam” through the Free Speech Tracker entry on the subject: 



Silent Sam is certainly not the only monument to stir trouble in recent years. Check out other similar tracker entries below:


Discussion Questions

  1. If monuments to Confederate leaders, slaveholders, and other prominent racists are to be taken down, where does one draw the line? Should the Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., be removed? The Washington Monument? Does tearing down just a few notorious Confederate monuments create a slippery slope?
  2. Opponents of Confederate monument removal often claim that they represent a valuable part of American history. Do these monuments have historical value? If so, does society have a responsibility to maintain this history, even if the historical messages are unnerving?
  3. Most Confederate monuments were not built in the aftermath of the Civil War, but rather during the rise of Jim Crow laws and into the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, historical moments in the twentieth century when white supremacists sought to reassert their dominance, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Should this background and intent influence the discussion around the monuments’ removal today?
  4. Some cities have begun removing Confederate statues from cemeteries, while others have chosen to move contentious monuments into burial grounds, away from routine public view. Are cemeteries a possible compromise solution to the controversy, or simply a new front in the struggle? 
  5. Consider the case at Mary Baldwin University, where artworks containing images of Confederate monuments were censored. Can racist imagery be effectively reappropriated into art? How should audiences grapple with such art?
  6. Confederate monuments are not the only statues that find themselves in a thorny Free Speech situation: The case of the Satanic monument at the Arkansas state capitol building shows how monuments can be a form of protest. Should there be limitations on what kind of monuments can be built on government property? Who should determine these limitations? 
  7. The removal of controversial landmarks is an international issue. On April 3, 2020, the city of Prague removed a Communist-era statue memorializing a Russian general. Many Czechs view the monument as a relic of Soviet oppression, but the statue’s removal has drawn criticism from Russian government officials, who claim they should have been let in on the decision. What should we learn about foreign cases? What are similarities and differences between the Confederate case and others?


Click on these themes below: Protest Politics, Violence/Threats, Identity

Discuss: What patterns emerge? What does this confluence of stories tell us about Free Speech issues in the United States? Free Speech and memorialization?

Tracker Entries