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After Inspiring Confederate Monument Removal Elsewhere, Virginia Cities May Soon Do The Same

The Robert E Lee statue in Charlottesville's Market Street Park
The Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville's Market Street Park. (Roberto Roldan/VPM)

On the opening day of this year’s legislative session, more than a hundred protestors stood in front of the Capitol steps. 

They chanted “monumental justice,” a term the protestors say means giving local governments the ability to decide what to do with Confederate monuments.

Jalane Schmidt, a Charlottesville activist who helped lead the movement to bring down the Robert E. Lee monument there, told the crowd that these decisions should be made by the communities the statue's impact.

“In 21st century Virginia, Richmond should not mandate what far away reaches of the state [must] keep 20th century Jim Crow statues that glorify the losing side of a 19th century war,” Schmidt said.

Delegate Sally Hudson (D-Charlottesville) also attended the rally. She encouraged protestors, especially those who lived through the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, to share their stories with lawmakers.

“It’s my constituents who are still disabled and traumatized from the violence that we suffered,” Hudson said. “So you come here, you tell those stories.”

The white supremacist rally in Charlottesville accelerated the movement across the U.S. to remove Confederate monuments and symbolism. But in Virginia, home to the former capital of the Confederacy, those statues and other war memorials are protected by state law.

With a Democratic majority taking control of the House and Senate, Virginia lawmakers now seem poised to change that. 

Currently, two bills are moving through the General Assembly after passing both chambers. The Senate bill would allow for a locality to move a Confederate monument, but only after soliciting public input and a report from the state’s Department of Historic Resources. The House version would simply require a majority vote of the local governing body. 

Both bills have passed along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposing.

The General Assembly’s newfound support for removing Confederate monuments hasn’t always been there. 

Hudson recently replaced long-time Charlottesville representative David Toscano, who twice proposed giving localities control over Confederate monuments. Both times it failed. Democratic Del. Steve Heretick helped kill the bill. 

The City of Charlottesville has also been the subject of a lawsuit that has dragged on for nearly three years. 

Richard Schragger, a law professor at the University of Virginia, has been following the case closely. 

“The trauma of the events of August 2017 is still being felt here in Charlottesville by all us, and so the litigation has prolonged that kind of pain I think,” he said.

Schragger said the case has raised a number of issues around how we should think about Confederate statues, including whether they violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. That was a legal defense made by the city. 

“They said, ‘Listen, these statues were erected during the time of Jim Crow for the purpose of subordinating and sending a message to the African American community that they were second class citizens,” Schragger said.

The judge ultimately ruled that Charlottesville’s Confederate monuments do not suppress the voices of people of color within the community. Judge Richard Moore also ruled that the monuments of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are protected under the state’s 1904 war memorials statue. 

The lawsuit, which was brought by community members and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, is still ongoing. 

Andrew Bennett Morehead, the public information officer for the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the group opposes the removal of statues because they honor their ancestors’ sacrifices during the Civil War.

“We are charged to uphold our ancestor's good name and perpetuate their true history,” Morehead said.

But for others like Kristin Szakos, the statues actually distort the true history.

Szakos, who was a member of Charlottesville City Council when they voted to remove the Lee and Davis statues, said they perpetuate a “Lost Cause” narrative that the Civil War was not primarily about maintaining the institution of slavery.

“The intent of those statues and what they convey is the veneration of the Confederate cause: that certain people should be held in subjugation, that white supremacy is good and that the South should have won the war,” she said.

On a recent afternoon, Szakos sat in the shadow of the Lee monument, recounting the pushback she got for that decision. There were night time calls, nasty voicemail messages and people confronting her in the street.

Asked if she would vote again to take down the Lee statue after the events of August 2017, Szakos said she hasn’t changed her mind.

“I think that every time people stand up to really entrenched hatred, hatred is going to respond,” she said. “To say that the way one should deal with that is never stand up to hatred just isn’t tenable.”

It’s unclear whether cities like Charlottesville and Norfolk that already voted to remove statues would have to repeat the process if the bills in the General Assembly become law.

 

The Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville's Market Street Park.