Richmond City Council Takes Aim at Confederate Monuments

A statue of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson sits on Monument Avenue alongside three other Civil War monuments in Richmond, Va. (Brad Kutner / CNS)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – In a win for civil rights activists fighting to roll back a more than 100-year-old law that has blocked the removal of Confederate monuments across Virginia, Richmond’s City Council passed a resolution Monday to petition the state’s Legislature to empower cities to do as they wish with the controversial war memorials. 

“There are some folks from across the spectrum … that are very supportive of this measure and have been,” city council member and resolution patron Michael Jones said. 

Jones has submitted similar resolutions to the council twice in the past two years but both attempts failed, primarily due to the fate of legislative efforts to repeal the law in the state’s Republican-controlled General Assembly. Now, for the first time in more than two decades, Democrats will control both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office, renewing hopes of repealing the law, which was enacted in 1904. 

“I wanna see what happens with the General Assembly and make sure we are in the legal right to act in any which way we chose as a city,” he said.

The war memorial law bans the removal of “monuments or memorials for any war or conflict, or for any engagement of such war or conflict” and it forbids any authorities or citizens from disturbing or interfering with such monuments.  

The recent election of Delegate Sally Hudson in the state’s 57th District, which includes Charlottesville, has generated renewed interest in legislation to roll back the war monuments law and legal efforts to circumvent it. 

“They aren’t war monuments, they are Jim Crow memorials,” Hudson told Courthouse News shortly after her 2019 win.

In a tweet Monday night, the delegate thanked the Richmond City Council for passing the new resolution. 

“Now it’s time for the House and Senate to deliver,” she said. 

Efforts to remove monuments to Confederate leaders and their ilk spiked in the last decade with black and progressive groups calling them effigies to slavery and white supremacy. 

In December, artist Kehinde Whiley unveiled a statue in Richmond – near the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy – featuring a black man with dreadlocks atop a horse, mirroring a pose depicted by Confederate monuments. And over the summer, Richmond’s Mayor Levar Stoney helped to rename a busy street after black tennis star and civil rights hero Arthur Ashe. 

Monument Avenue, which crosses Arthur Ashe Boulevard, still has four monuments to Confederate leaders.  

Pushback on the removal of such monuments hit a boiling point in August 2017 when white supremacists descended on the central Virginia city of Charlottesville after its council attempted to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee. That event – the Unite the Right rally – erupted into a riot where pro-monument attendee James Alex Fields Jr. deliberately drove his car into counter-demonstrators, killing Heather Heyer. 

Fields was sentenced to life in prison for the murder.

The rally drew national attention to efforts to remove Confederate statues – efforts that have been successful in states such as Louisiana and Kentucky but are stymied in Virginia, where the 1904 law keeps the memorials standing in the former capital of the Confederacy. 

In Charlottesville, monument-supporters citing the 1904 law won their lawsuit over the city’s efforts to remove the Lee statue. However, the city has promised to appeal that decision.   

To the east, Norfolk City Council voted to remove a civil war monument in the wake of the Unite the Right rally but later admitted it lacked legal authority under the state law.

Nevertheless, the coastal city filed a suit last summer claiming it has a First Amendment right to remove the monument despite the old law. After multiple acts of vandalism, the city also argued that efforts to clean or make the statue safe forces it to run afoul of the law by making changes to the monument to preserve it. The city’s case is still awaiting a hearing date.

The state’s attorney general, Democrat Mark Herring, has long supported a city’s right to remove statues and specifically gave Norfolk the “okay” in a filing in the city’s suit, which said the state would not punish the city if the monument was removed, although the city could still be vulnerable to a citizen-brought civil filing. 

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has signaled his support for the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue that sits in the rotunda of the state’s capital building. 

Northam has made civil rights a priority in the wake of a college yearbook photo showing him in blackface, something he initially admitted to but later denied. A review of the photo failed to determine Northam’s role but activists on the right and far left have continued to hammer him over the controversy.  

The efforts toward statue removal, including Monday’s vote at Richmond City Hall, have made activists optimistic that they might someday have fewer shadows of Confederate generals darkening their streets. 

Marc Cheatham, a longtime Richmond culture and political blogger who has tracked monument issues and urged for their removal on his Cheats Movement Podcast for years was among those who were pleased to hear that the city voted to support the movement.

“We have a long path ahead to dismantle structural racism in our City and State,” Cheatham said after the vote. “But this recent action starts to chart a path forward.”

A bill to address the 1904 law is expected to be submitted in the coming days. The 2020 legislative session in Virginia starts Wednesday, Jan. 8.

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