Black Lives Matter: General Lee’s last stand

Timothy RybackMonday 29 June 2020

On 1 July 2020, new legislation in the state of Virginia, United States, will devolve decision-making on statues from state to municipal authorities, resolving a three-year dispute over the planned removal of an equestrian statue, in the city of Charlottesville. ‘Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,’ US President Donald Trump tweeted on 17 August 2017, amid violent protests over the statue. ‘Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson?’ Provocative at the time, President Trump’s tweets sound prescient in summer 2020. But back in 2017, removal of the Lee statue was not the only option, nor even the preferred one.

Contested histories

This article is authored by Timothy Ryback on behalf of the group of experts - convened by the IBA, The Salzburg Global Seminar, and IHJR – which is preparing a volume of eight case studies addressing the social, political and legal dynamics in facilitating or complicating the resolution of public disputes over contested historical legacies in public spaces. The project will be the product of three years of in-depth research. Find out more here

Amid the current surge in protests over statues and monuments, the equestrian statue of American Civil War general Robert E Lee, in Charlottesville, Virginia, remains the most iconic and tragic to date. On 12 August 2017, right-wing protesters clashed with counter-protesters over the planned removal of the Lee memorial, and a companion statue of another Confederate general, Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. The confrontations ended tragically with the death of a counter-protester, who was run down by a vehicle, and two Virginia state police officers, who died in a helicopter accident while surveilling the situation from the air.

The decision to relocate the Lee and Jackson statues to parks outside the city center had been taken earlier that year at a Charlottesville City Council meeting following the findings of a special commission that had been constituted to review possible options for the disposition of the two monuments.

In autumn 2016, the Charlottesville City Council, the municipality’s governing board, established the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces (‘the Commission’), to propose ‘options for telling the full story of Charlottesville’s history of race and for changing the City’s narrative through our public spaces.” Over a three-month period, the nine-member Commission undertook a variety of activities to gather public comment, hear from experts, and study the statues in person. The Commission also reviewed the results of efforts to address concerns over Confederate monuments in other cities, ranging from Virginia's capital city Richmond, to the northern Virginia city of Alexandria, to out-of-state locations including Saint Louis and New Orleans. The group held 15 public meetings at a variety of locations around the city to make it more convenient for residents of different neighborhoods to attend. It also sponsored three public forums. Attention focused on two statues, in particular, a large equestrian statue of Lee, and his key lieutenant, Jackson.

The Commission deliberated between two fundamental options, either ‘transforming-in-place,’ that is, adding placards or a counter monument, or ‘relocating’ to another park outside the city centre. On 1 November 2016, commissioners voted six-three, to recommend that the city leave the statues of both Lee and Jackson in place. But once the draft report was ready on 10 November, the Commission decided to add a recommendation to change the name of Lee Park. By the end of the month, the Commission changed its conclusion yet again, advocating that the city move the Lee Statue to McIntire Park, located just outside the downtown area. ‘The commission ultimately chose to recommend sending both the Relocate and Transform-in-Place options to council for deliberation,’ the final report noted. ‘The commission believes that both options offer important opportunities and risks.’

Starting in January 2017, Charlottesville City Council held several discussions on how to respond to the recommendations, including a public hearing. Anti-statue activist Jalane Schmidt said that ‘in the 1920s, leading white citizens’ contempt for black humanity was enshrined in Charlottesville’s public spaces […] these monuments [the Lee and Jackson statues] prompted and still perpetuate a romantic false narrative of the Lost Cause, which erases the memory of the enslaved majority’. But most speakers commented in favour of keeping the Lee statue. Statue supporters included Kenneth Jackson, an African American from Charlottesville who said that the controversy was an artificial one, recently invented, presumably by newcomers to the city. ‘I can tell y’all, we didn’t have these issues,’ Jackson said. ‘We grew up together. I used to walk through every neighborhood. Don’t play black folks for a fool. This disgusts me – and you’re supposed to be our leaders? Our parents didn’t hate the statue.’ A poll taken by a local television station found 87 per cent of viewers supported leaving the Lee statue in place.

The City Council also sought legal advice on a state law protecting ‘memorials for war veterans.’ First passed by the General Assembly of the State of Virginia in 1904 and amended several times since, the law prohibited counties, without mentioning cities, from removing or tampering with memorials erected to honour soldiers who fought for either side in the ‘Civil War or War Between the States’, as well as a variety of other conflicts ranging from the second Anglo-Powhatan War of 1622 to the recent war in Iraq. ‘We cannot say with any certainty whether or not the provisions of the statute govern what City Council can or cannot do,’ Charlottesville Deputy City Attorney Lisa Robertson wrote in a memo.

Despite uncertainty over their authority, city councillors put the issue on their agenda for January 2017. City Council member Wes Bellamy, the city’s vice mayor, advocated removal, as did council member Krisin Szakos. In the meeting, the Commission’s recommendation to ‘transform-in-place’ was quickly dismissed. ‘Three times during the January 17, 2017 meeting there was a motion to move the Lee statue and rename that park. Each time, Councilors Bellamy and Szakos voted in favor,’ Hawes Spencer writes in his book, Summer of Hate, ‘but each time the motion died with “no” votes from Mike Signer and Kathy Galvin and an abstention from Councilor Bob Fenwick.’ The abstention caused consternation.

‘That's basically the same, Mr. Fenwick, as a “no”,’ Szakos, the councillor who had made the motions, said. Bellamy agreed. ‘This decision is essentially being held hostage, because you want to see other things move forward,’ he said. Fenwick spoke of the need for additional programmes that would benefit the city’s underprivileged population. At the next City Council meeting, on 6 February 2017, the motion to relocate the Lee and Jackson statues passed a three-two majority.

On 20 March 2017, six weeks after the City Council vote, a lawsuit was filed with the Charlottesville Circuit Court to halt the city's challenging decision to move the statues, invoking the Virginia state law on veterans’ memorials and grave sites. On 13 May, a torchlit rally by white supremacists was held to protest the City Council decision. This rally was followed, on 8 July, by a second rally, this time with fifty members of the Ku Klux Klan, that resulted in clashes with counter-protesters and the police. The following month, members of ‘Unite the Right’ rallied in Charlottesville, where they clashed with counter-protesters.

For the last three years, the fate of the Lee statue was the focus of lawsuits, presidential tweets, and divisive public debate. On 1 July 2020, House Bill 1537 on ‘memorials for war veterans’ comes into force in the Commonwealth of Virginia, bringing closure to the final disposition of the Robert E Lee statue, just as equally fraught disputes are emerging over newly contested statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and a host of other historical figures. President Trump may not have realised it in 2017 but no one nowadays is surprised that Washington, Jefferson and a host of others may be next.

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