On any given day, a courthouse is filled with people of different genders, races and ethnicities, socio-economic and educational backgrounds, and varied reasons for being there. What do they have in common? In 51 localities throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia, they all walked past a statue of a Confederate soldier as they entered the courthouse. Central Virginia residents want Confederate symbols removed from outside and inside their courthouses. A petition circulating in Charlottesville and Albemarle County calls for the removal the statue of an anonymous soldier dubbed "Johnny Reb" in front of Albemarle County courthouse.
The petition, started by Matthew Christensen, articulates the connection between erecting Confederate monuments at courthouses as Jim Crow laws were being enacted and white supremacists chanting "You will not replace us" on the streets of Charlottesville in August, 2017.
Despite Charlottesville City Council's vigorous attempts to remove the statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson over the past two years, the Board of Supervisors for Albemarle County has taken no equivalent action. The petition asserts that by remaining silent, the Board of Supervisors is effectively endorsing the white supremacist values the monument represents.
In nearby Louisa County, attorneys for defendant Darcel Murphy filed a motion to have a giant portrait of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate memorabilia removed from the courtroom. Murphy, who is African American, is charged with capital murder and faces the death penalty. The motion covers a range of reasons that Confederate imagery in the courthouse violates Murphy's rights under the Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, Eleventh, Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
While the defense admits satisfaction "that the court harbors no racial bias," the motion contends that "Confederate symbols and icons in the courtroom can have a powerful influence on other participants and observers, such as jurors, witnesses, family of loved ones involved in this case, and the citizens of Louisa.” This elegant document reviews legal precedents and research that indicate the presence of such symbols infringe on the defendant's right to a fair trial. No mention is made, however, of the Confederate soldier perpetually standing guard in front of Louisa County Courthouse.
In 2015, Judge Martin F. Clark Jr. of the Circuit Court of Patrick County ordered the removal of a portrait of Confederate General J.E.B Stuart from the courtroom. Judge Clark cited the offensive nature of Confederate symbols to African American members of the community. "The courtroom should be a place every litigant and spectator finds fair and utterly neutral. In my estimation, the portrait of a uniformed Confederate General - and a slaveowner himself - does not comport with that essential standard." He too failed to mention the Confederate soldier outside. On August 28, 2017, two weeks after white supremacists attacked Charlottesville, the Patrick County Board of Supervisors voted to protect this monument to white supremacy.
The arguments against displaying Confederate memorabilia inside the courtroom should extend to the Courthouse statues. These public monuments proclaim a legal system that intends to disadvantage people of color. Dismantling these symbols of oppression will require action on the part of local governments, state legislators and the judicial system, bolstered by voters who make their wishes known. Send a message to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors by signing the petition now and be sure to vote on November 6th, ya'll.