Virginia Lawmakers Grapple With Removal of Civil War Statues

Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., in front of a statue of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. (CNS Photo/Brad Kutner)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – A measure to remove Civil War monuments in Virginia passed its first hurdle Monday morning, while a related effort by a rural Republican lawmaker shook up another committee meeting.

Localities around the state are currently barred from removing war memorials by a law passed in 1904. In recent years, civil rights activists and historians have pushed for the removal of Civil War statues, and Confederate monuments in particular, to rid cities of a legacy tied to racism and slavery.

Advocates were bolstered by an August 2017 riot in Charlottesville, known as the Unite the Right rally, which saw neo-Nazis and white supremacists gather in support of keeping the controversial monuments. The event ended with one white supremacist, James Alex Fields Jr., driving his car into a crowd of counter protesters and killing one woman, Heather Heyer.

Meanwhile, groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans claim efforts to remove the statues would erase the state’s history and heritage.

After opening the chamber floor Monday to heated public comment – which included testimony from survivors of Charlottesville’s rally, as well as heritage groups claiming statue removal would lead to a slippery slope – Senator Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, defended her bill giving localities the authority to remove war monuments.

“This had nothing to do with history or heritage,” said Locke, instead suggesting the monuments misinform the public and gloss over the oppression and injustice Confederate leaders fought a war to perpetuate.

The Senate Committee on Local Government then voted 8-7 along party lines to advance the bill.

While Democrats and civil rights activists celebrated Monday’s committee vote, one Republican lawmaker, Delegate Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, faced questions after sponsoring a separate bill that also aims to remove a statue associated with the state’s racist past.

Virginia Senator Harry F. Byrd Sr., a Democrat who served in the Legislature until 1965, was vehemently opposed to desegregation of public schools and supported the Mass Resistance movement, which saw the state close many of its public schools instead of desegregate in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education.

A statue of Byrd was erected in Richmond in 1976 and bears a plaque praising his support of “governmental restraint and programs in the best interest of all the people of Virginia,” with no mention of his fight against racial equality.

Walker submitted a bill to remove the statue, but some say the effort is just a shot at Democrats.

“If they want to start taking down the Confederate statues, the statues of our previous presidents, then I’m prepared likewise to do the same for those of the opposite political party,” Walker told a local NPR affiliate.

While broader statue removal laws are on track to pass both the House and Senate, with Democratic Governor Ralph Northam expected to sign them, Walker moved to strike his bill at a House Rules Committee on Friday.

But Delegate Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, moved to have the bill heard before the committee instead.

“I think I’d like to hear from the delegate about why he wants to strike the bill,” she said.

“We’ve had several people ask to strike bills but this session we’ve never had anyone ask why they’re striking the bill,” responded Republican Kirk Cox, the former House majority leader, questioning the motion and fearing the effort to block the striking of a bill would be inconsistent with the 400-year-old chamber’s history.

Delegate Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, who has spent the majority of his 16 years as a member of the House minority, spoke up and said he’d seen Democrats’ bills with requests to strike be brought to the floor by Republicans in the past.

“Back in the old days, when it happened, it was inconsistent too,” Sickles said. “I’d love to vote for the bill.”

The motion to hear Walker’s bill at a later meeting passed on party lines.

While none of the delegates responded to requests for comment, Shaun Kenney, former executive director of the Virginia Republican Party, took to Twitter to say the House should vote on it.

When reached for more comment, Kenney instead pointed to video of his young son Matthew Kenney giving a speech during a mock legislative session as part of the House of Delegates Page Program.

“Byrd was one of the biggest segregationists at the time,” said the younger Kenney. “This is what he believed, this is where he stands and this is what still stands outside our Capitol.”

As for blocking the striking of a bill, the older Kenney said this tactic was often used by Republicans when they were in charge over the last 20 years.

“This sort of theater happens all the time,” he said in a phone interview. “Republicans were famous for making Democrats take floor votes on bills they didn’t want.”

Walker’s bill could be heard in the House Rules Committee, which meets at the discretion of the committee chair, at any point between now and the legislative session’s crossover next Wednesday.

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