The Virginia Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the city of Charlottesville can legally remove statues of Confederate Civil War generals, overturning a lower court ruling.
Statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, erected in 1924 and 1921, respectively, have been the topic of controversy in the city for several years, as the public has become less tolerant of racist symbols and monuments. Charlottesville city leaders were sued by a group of citizens after voting to remove the statues in the wake of a white nationalist rally in 2017.
A state circuit court sided with those citizens in 2019 on the grounds that removing the statues would violate a state law on the “disturbance of or interference with” war memorials. The city appealed that ruling, however, and on Thursday the State Supreme Court ruled in favor of Charlottesville officials.
The statues, the court explained, were put up before the law on war monuments was established. “It has long been the law of the Commonwealth that retroactive application of statutes is disfavored and that ‘statutes are to be construed to operate prospectively only unless a contrary intention is manifest and plain,'” the court said in its ruling.
The law cited by city residents in favor of keeping the statues “did not provide the authority for the City to erect the Statues, and it does not prohibit the City from disturbing or interfering with them,” the court added.
A national reckoning with Confederate memorials took place following the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally, when white nationalists and neo-Nazis descended upon the city in defense of the monuments for generals who fought to defend slavery. The rally turned violent after far right participants attacked counterprotesters, causing significant injury and harm, including the murder of anti-racist activist Heather Heyer.
Former President Donald Trump was heavily criticized in the days after the rally for expressing unabashed sympathy for the neo-Nazi and white nationalist protesters. Trump defended the positions of the far right, claiming that removing Lee’s and Jackson’s statue was “changing history” and “changing culture.”
Many historians have argued against such sentiments and have demonstrated that these monuments serve to perpetuate a mythologized and distorted account of slavery and the civil war pushed by Confederate apologists.
History relies upon factual documents and other pieces of evidence. “None of this requires statues,” said William Cavert, an associate professor of history at the University of St. Thomas, in an op-ed last summer. “Indeed, the process of removing monuments and renaming streets, squares and even cities themselves has always resulted from remembering the past.”