RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — After nearly a week of protests over the death of George Floyd, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced a plan Thursday morning to remove a massive statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from Richmond’s historic Monument Avenue.
“We’re here to be honest about our past and talk about our future,” Northam said in a press conference held near the governor’s mansion, a few miles from where the Lee statue currently sits. “I’m no historian but I strongly believe we have to confront where we’ve been in order to shape where we’re going.”
The battle over Confederate monuments in the South has raged in recent years. Many say they are symbols of white supremacy, while conservative lawmakers like Virginia Senator Amanda Chase, R–Chesterfield, associate them with “heritage, not hate.”
“Northam is giving into looters and domestic terrorists instead of defending the historical monuments owned by all Virginians,” Chase wrote in an online petition to keep the statue in place, pointing to weekend protests that saw some property damage.
A group of Republican state senators called Chase’s response “idiotic, inappropriate and inflammatory,” but also said Northam’s plan to remove statues will “further divide, not unite, Virginians.”
In 1861, Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens delivered a speech in Savannah, Georgia, defending slavery and laying out the rationale for the Confederacy seceding from the United States.
“Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition,” Stephens said just weeks before the Civil War began. “This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
After the Confederacy was crushed, statues like Lee’s in Richmond were erected across the South in an effort to maintain the so-called “lost cause” narrative, which portrayed southern whites as heroically defending states’ rights instead of aiming to keep black people enslaved.
Lee famously did not want a statue made of him after the war.
“I think it is wiser not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the example of those nations to obliterate those marks of strife,” he said at the time.
“Those are wise words indeed,” Governor Northam said Thursday morning.
The Lee statue that Northam has ordered to be removed was erected in 1890 and sits in the middle of the city’s Monument Avenue, which is lined with four other statues of Confederate leaders.
Lee’s monument is unique as it is the only state-owned statue, while the others are on city land. Because the state owns it, Northam said, the governor has the power to remove it. Northam has instructed the Virginia Department of General Services to remove the statute “as soon as possible.”
It will then go into storage before a decision about its future is made.
The announcement comes after six days of protests in Richmond and across the state against racism and police violence.
On Friday night, Lee’s statue and the other monuments became targets of both shouts and spray paint as thousands of Richmonders flooded the streets after months of isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Protesters also damaged property Friday, including a city bus that was burned to the ground. Saturday night saw looting through the city’s art’s district and at shops near a local college.
On Sunday night, the city’s young black Mayor Levar Stoney instituted a curfew that brought the National Guard in. Protesters and members of the press were tear-gassed shortly after the curfew kicked in at 8 p.m. Over 200 people were arrested, according to the Richmond Police Department.
Protests in Virginia, like the rest of the country, continued Monday with yet another demonstration at the base of Lee’s statue. The demonstration turned chaotic after police fired tear gas almost 30 minutes ahead of curfew as protesters kneeled, arms raised in the air, at the monument’s base.
Stoney apologized to an angry crowd outside City Hall on Tuesday afternoon, and he later marched through Richmond with the protesters as they snaked their way from the Capitol to the Lee monument.
“It’s time to put an end to the lost cause and undertake a righteous cause,” Stoney said at Thursday morning’s announcement. “Richmond is no longer the capital of the Confederacy,” he said as those at the press conference, including Northam, clapped.
On Wednesday, Stoney also announced a number of reforms in line with the protesters’ demands, including “exploring the creation of a citizen review board,” creating a special alert system for police to more safely handle those suffering from a mental crisis and doubling down on the city police department’s ban on chokeholds.
Statue removal was among the demands made by protestors. The mayor promised to submit a removal plan for the remaining statues by July 1, the first day a new law will go into effect allowing the removals. Virginia cities had previously been barred from removing war monuments, but after Democrats took control of the statehouse last year they passed a law giving local governments the authority to remove monuments in public spaces.
“Elections have consequences and that is going to be very clear on Monument Avenue,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “Traditional voices became a minority in Virginia last November and that is bad news for Confederate memorials in urban and suburban jurisdictions.”
While Northam no doubt hopes monument removals will help calm protests, activists say they are far from finished.
“Removing the statues alone is not enough to erase our title as capital of the Confederacy,” said Chelsea Higgs Wise, an organizer with the Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project, in a text message after Northam’s press conference. Her group helped organize some of the past week’s protests and developed a list of demands for Stoney.
While pleased to hear about their removal, Higgs Wise gave little praise to Northam and expressed concern that once the monuments were gone, the “roots of our Virginia Way” – an old saying for how Virginia’s GOP-controlled Legislature acted – would remain.
“My hope for a true transformative step after 402 years will be electing a black woman as governor of this commonwealth,” she added.
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