On Thursday, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced the imminent removal of a monumental equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond. Northam said, "In Virginia we no longer teach a false version of history...and in 2020 we can no longer honor a system that was based on the buying and selling of enslaved people...It was wrong then, and it is wrong now."
Northam made the announcement amidst national and international protests demanding racial justice following the murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis policemen. But what made it possible was the action of voters who elected a Democratic majority in the Virginia General Assembly last November. Earlier this year, both houses of the Virginia legislature enacted HB1537 giving localities full authority to decide the fate of Confederate statues, something that was previously prohibited by the Virginia State Code. Northam signed the bill into law on April 11 and it takes effect on July 1, 2020.
The Richmond statue became a flashpoint for protestors, as have other Confederate statues throughout the United States. Some localities have expedited the removal of statues, ostensibly to avoid damage or quell civil disturbance.
Charlottesville played a significant role in advancing the removal of Confederate monuments nationwide. In 2016, high-school student Zyahna Bryant petitioned the Charlottesville City Council to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee in a city park named after the Confederate general. The Council voted to remove that statue and one of Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson on the grounds of the Albemarle County Courthouse. A third Confederate statue of an unnamed soldier in front of the Courthouse was not included in the city's plan.
The statues became a focal point for white supremacists who invaded Charlottesville on August 11 and 12, 2017, terrorizing local residents and causing the death of Heather Heyer and two state policemen. Despite drawing attention to the issue of public monuments glorifying the enslavement and systematic oppression of Black people, the Charlottesville statues remained. This was partly due to the law and partly because they prompted a lawsuit against Charlottesville City Council resulting in an injunction.
On Friday, the plaintiffs of the lawsuit, who call themselves the "Monument Fund," modified their complaint to accord with the new law. They will no longer fight the removal of the Lee and Jackson statues and are instead proposing to move them to an undisclosed location.
The removal of Confederate symbols indicates progress toward anti-racism, but it is only a step in the right direction. Further progress requires dismantling the structures that support and perpetuate injustice, oppression and hate. We can learn a lesson from the statues, though. It is through our VOTE that we bring about change.