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Battle Over Public Monuments to the Confederacy Continues in Virginia

Campaigns to remove state-sanctioned Confederate symbols, perceived as glorifying racism, are spreading across the South.

The Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo: OZinOH; Edited: LW / TO)

Virginians are engaged in a volatile and polarized discussion over the legacy of the Confederacy, and the fate of a monument is at stake in Charlottesville. The Charlottesville City Council is considering whether to remove an imposing 92-year-old statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee. The campaign to remove this 20-foot tall statue is part of a wider movement underway to remove all state-sanctioned symbols of the Confederacy perceived as glorifying a racist heritage across the South, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which initiated the push after the killing of nine churchgoers in South Carolina in June 2015. Recent victories in this campaign have included the lowering of the Confederate flag at the South Carolina Statehouse, Baltimore’s decision to relocate its Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson statues, and a decision by Memphis to give up a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest.

In Charlottesville, defenders of the statue are acting as if the thick cement pedestal on which Lee’s horse stands contained Lee’s interred sarcophagus. Their ferocious responses to the proposal have only strengthened the case for the statue’s removal.

Recent events illustrate the uncertain prospects of these attempts amid strong-arm tactics and popular resistance. Similar campaigns in Kentucky, Texas and Florida were defeated. In New Orleans, the company commissioned to handle the removal of four Confederate monuments faced a loss of local clients, death threats and the charred destruction of the CEO’s Lamborghini. In Texas, a student from Oklahoma State carrying a loaded AR-15 semiautomatic rifle shouted at a protester in front of a defaced Civil War monument, which locals voted to protect. Mississippi’s governor has gone on the offensive calling for April to be Confederate Heritage Month.

On March 22, Charlottesville’s vice mayor and only African-American councilor, Wes Bellamy, held a press conference in front of the larger-than-life statue to bring up the issue again. Bellamy, a high school teacher, is under 30 and devoted to giving Charlottesville’s Black community a say in city government, after four years of zero African-American representation on the city council and a history of bold-faced marginalization of the Black community, for which the city officially apologized in 2011.

Bellamy asked the crowd, dotted with billowing Confederate flags and protesters clad in leather jackets with motorcycle gang logos, to respect those scheduled to speak. The motorcycle gang members were from the Army of Northern Virginia Mechanized Cavalry, accompanied by flag-bearers from the Virginia Flaggers. The protesters carried the Stars and Bars mantle of segregationists to the meeting and used their free speech to suppress the rights of others.

It all started with “the question heard around the South”: “When do we start talking about taking down these statues?”

Protesters interrupted an African-American resident’s comments, shouting that the effort’s supporters were “communists” and “Taliban.” Statue supporters also yelled “anti-Christian,” “racist” and “coward,” adding, oddly, that Lee “unified this country.” A pro-Confederate petition circulating with 200 signatures referenced the effort as a plot by “gay activists, the NAACP, and Black Lives Matter groups.” Others asked whether tearing down other local parks and Monticello would be next. One protester suggested people who don’t like the statue shouldn’t go through the park. Bellamy had called the press conference in response to the petition of Zyahna Bryant, a 15-year-old African-American high school student, on the grounds that the statue made her and her friends uncomfortable.

The pro-Confederate crowd has resorted to similar arguments about tradition and history, as well as similar denunciations and legal machinations as were used against the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and it isn’t the first time someone wanting to update Charlottesville’s monuments has been confronted by shallow and fallacious arguments, intimidation and name-calling. One would not expect to see statues of Hitler or parks carrying his name in Germany, as an elderly African-American constituent in New Orleans argued before the city council in December, but pro-Confederate supporters in the North and South refuse to see how Confederate monuments are similar for many of their fellow Americans, who avoid the park or avert their gaze from the statues, in disgust.

It all started with “the question heard around the South,” asked by Charlottesville Councilor Kristin Szakos in 2012: “When do we start talking about taking down these statues?” Szakos, daughter of Southern civil rights activists whose neighbors’ house was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), uttered the question seemingly off the cuff during the Q&A of a luncheon speech by a Civil War historian at the Charlottesville Festival of the Book. There was an audible gasp of horror and offense from many members of the audience. Szakos’ family received threatening phone calls in which men shouted that she was a “whore” and a “bitch” and told her to keep her hands off their history. They spewed this vitriol even when one of Szakos’ children answered the phone. The discussion never happened, because of a state law banning the alteration of Confederate monuments, but a 2015 judge’s ruling opened the door.

At the press conference on March 22, Szakos reiterated the reasons why residents find the statues threatening, but the protesters were not ready to hear it. However, the alliance between Szakos — a white daughter of 1960s-era civil rights activists — and Bellamy, a Black millennial politician, may enable them to use the power of the city council to uproot this symbolic legacy of the Confederacy, which was celebrated by KKK marches when it was installed in 1924.

In North Carolina, the House passed a bill to require initiatives for the removal of historical monuments to be enacted by the General Assembly and approved by the governor. Luckily for Charlottesville’s reformers, a bill to restrict Virginia cities’ authority to remove “war-related” monuments was temporarily defeated by Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s veto in Richmond on March 11, but a vote to override the veto is coming up on April 20. Even if the House votes to override the governor’s veto, the City may retain control over the statue, according to the terms of its dedication. In the meantime, Richmond delegates have accepted Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer’s proposal that a commission be assembled to consider the issue.

If the effort to remove the statue is successful, it will be a strong symbolic statement about the distinction between the United States today and the pre-Civil Rights Act United States, where KKK terrorism and “sundown” towns dominated US society. Although the local NAACP president, Rick Turner, is right in pointing out that removing the statue “does little to address the wider question of racial inequality” in Charlottesville and beyond, it would nevertheless signal a meaningful symbolic break with the past. Though Turner would prefer to destroy the statue and trash it, the City will likely receive offers, as others have, from Civil War memorials or museums interested in the tourism the statue could bring.