Charlottesville set to remove Lee statue that sparked rally

Charlottesville set to finally remove Gen. Robert E. Lee statue after original decision to remove it sparked the deadly ‘Unite the Right’ rally four years ago

  • Charlottesville confirmed the removal of statues of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and Confederate Gen. Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson on Saturday
  • A 2016 campaign to remove the Lee statue sparked the violent ‘Unite the Right’ rally the following year which left dozens injured and a counter-protester dead 
  • In February 2017, the Charlottesville City Council voted to take Lee’s statue down, after a petition was started by Black high school student, Zyahna Bryant 
  •  A lawsuit was quickly filed, putting the city´s plans on hold, and white supremacists seized on the issue
  • Because of litigation and changes to a state law dealing with war memorials, the city had been unable to remove the monument until now 

A Confederate monument that helped spark the violent ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville four years ago, will be removed on Saturday, the city announced Friday.

In a news release, Charlottesville confirmed the statue removal of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, along with a statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson.     

Designated public viewing areas of the removals will be established in both parks where the statues are located, the news release said.  

The decision comes more than four years after the city voted to remove the Lee statue. 

The decision sparked the ‘Unite the Right’ rally lead by white supremacists and neo-Nazis, which clashed violently with counter-protesters leaving dozens injured and one counter-protestor dead. 

The statue of Robert E. Lee is seen uncovered in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va., on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. In a news release Friday, Charlottesville said that the equestrian statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee as well as a nearby one of Confederate Gen. Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson will be taken down Saturday

The decision comes more than five years after a 2016 debate was ignited on what to do with Lee’s statue.  It was a debate that later sparked neo-Nazis to gather in the city for an aggressive rally that left dozens injured and one protestor dead. A statue of Stonewall Jackson is seen uncovered in Justice Park, in Charlottesville, Va., on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018

Because of litigation and changes to a state law dealing with war memorials, the city had been unable to act and remove the monuments until now.

A coalition of racial justice activists who have long been fighting for the removal of the statues issued a statement Friday celebrating the news.

‘As long as they remain standing in our downtown public spaces, they signal that our community tolerated white supremacy and the Lost Cause these generals fought for,’ the coalition, Take ‘Em Down Cville, said in its statement. 

Preparations around the parks began Friday, including the installation of protective fencing. 

Although the city confirmed removal of the statues, the stone bases will be left in place temporarily and removed later. 

Perched in a small, picturesque city in the Blue Ridge mountains, the statues are located in places of relative prominence in Charlottesville.

Commissioned by a UVA graduate, the statues are just blocks apart from each other.

In 2017, Charlottesville City Council voted to take Lee’s statue down, but a lawsuit was quickly filed which put the city´s plans on hold. White supremacists rallied by torch-light in May 2017 following that decision

The issue reached a crescendo in August, when white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizers of the ‘Unite the Right’ rally gathered in the city to defend the statue of Lee. Seen in this picture, counter-protestors clash with white supremacists at the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017

In February 2017, the Charlottesville City Council voted to take Lee’s statue down, after a petition was started by Black high school student, Zyahna Bryant.

In addition, advocacy from other local leaders and activists, and the work of a commission appointed to study the issue, were also involved in the removal decision.  

A lawsuit was quickly filed, putting the city´s plans on hold, and white supremacists seized on the issue.

First, white supremacists rallied by torch-light at the state in May 2017, following a small group of Klansmen in July, far outnumbered by peaceful protesters.

The issue reached a crescendo in August, when white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizers of the ‘Unite the Right’ rally gathered in the city to defend the statue of Lee.

They seized on the issue for publicity, meeting in what was the largest gathering of extremists in at least a decade. They brawled in the streets with anti-racist counterprotesters as police largely stood by and watched.

Neo-Nazis seized on the issue for publicity, meeting in what was the largest gathering of extremists in at least a decade. Seen in this picture anti-racist protestors clash with white supremacists during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017

White supremacists brawled in the streets with anti-racist counterprotesters as police largely stood by and watched. Seen in this picture, anti-racist protestors clash with white supremacists during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017

A short time later, James Alex Fields, Jr – an avowed white supremacist and admirer of Adolf Hitler – intentionally plowed his car into a crowd of people, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and leaving others with life-altering injuries.

Because of the litigation over a state law protecting memorials to war veterans, Charlottesville´s hands were tied. 

Although the city government still wanted Lee’s statue gone, and voted to remove the nearby Jackson statue, the pair of monuments had to stay in place. 

A judge prevented the city from even shrouding them with tarps.

After Democrats took control of the General Assembly in the 2019 elections, the monument-protection law was rewritten a year later. Since then, local governments across the state have removed statues that stood for a century or more.

Charlottesville, however, was waiting for the resolution of the lawsuit, which came in April, when the state´s highest court sided with the city.

Since that ruling, the city government has been working its way through the requirements of the new law, like holding a public hearing and offering the statue to a museum or historical society for possible relocation.

The offer period for Charlottesville´s statues ended Thursday.

So far, ten responses have been received and the city remains open to ‘additional expressions of interest,’ according to Friday’s news release. 

Under the new law, the city has the final say in the statues’ disposition.

Both will be stored in a secure location on city property until the City Council makes a final decision, the news release said.

In the aftermath of the rally, Charlottesville residents unleashed a torrent of pain, anger and frustration at city and state officials, laying bare deeper issues about race, economic inequality and what should be done to move forward. 

Activists have since pushed the city to address its legacies of racism and slavery, its dearth of affordable housing and police accountability, among other issues.

Kristin Szakos, who was a City Council member at the time of the rally, said in an interview earlier this week that there was a determination to make sure the violence of 2017 was not in vain.

‘It really brought up a lot of awareness of white supremacy that is not just from visitors from Idaho, but also from structures in our own culture and in our own institutions that we have to deal with. And that those are more important than just chasing Nazis out of our town,’ she said.

Szakos, no longer in office, said she thinks the city has made some progress toward that work and that the statue removals will be another step in the right direction.

City officials have said they plan to redesign the park spaces where the statues are located ‘in a way that promotes healing and that tells a more complete history of Charlottesville.’

Who was Confederate general and slave owner Robert E. Lee? 

A portrait of Confederate general Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee was a decorated Confederate general.

He joined the army in 1825, and graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1829. 

He married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the only daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington, in 1831. 

Lee first saw action with the American military in Mexico in 1846. He later served as major general of Virginia’s state forces. 

He inherited the Virginia mansion when his father-in-law died in 1857, leaving Lee to manage the large estate.

The estate was in disarray and Lee ended up taking a two year leave of absence from the army to re-organize the flailing plantation.

He had extremely strict expectations of his slaves and exacted harsh punishments for those who fell short. 

His efforts led to near slave revolts on site, especially as many believed they would be released on Custis’ death.

In 1859, Lee severely punished three slaves – Wesley Norris, his sister Mary, and a cousin of theirs – after they tried to escape the plantation. 

A newspaper at the time claimed Lee had them whipped once they were captured and returned to Virginia. 

Mary received 20 lashes while the two men received 50 before the pair were sent to work on railroads in Virginia and Alabama. 

Many of the 200 slaves he had inherited were either sold to traders or jailed by Lee and by 1860, only one family remained intact.  

He is believed to have told his son in 1868:  ‘You will never prosper with the blacks, and it is abhorrent to a reflecting mind to be supporting and cherishing those who are plotting and working for your injury, and all of whose sympathies and associations are antagonistic to yours.’ 

After the Civil War, Lee resisted efforts to build Confederate monuments in his honor and instead wanted the nation to move on from the Civil War.

After his death, Southerners adopted ‘The Lost Cause’ revisionist narrative about the Civil War and placed Lee as its central figure. The Last Cause argued the South knew it was fighting a losing war and decided to fight it anyway on principle. It also tried to argue that the war was not about slavery but high constitutional ideals.

As The Lost Cause narrative grew in popularity, proponents pushed to memorialize Lee, ignoring his deficiencies as a general and his role as a slave owner. Lee monuments went up in the 1920s just as the Ku Klux Klan was experiencing a resurgence and new Jim Crow segregation laws were adopted.

The Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, went up in 1924. A year later, the U.S. Congress voted to use federal funds to restore the Lee mansion in the Arlington National Cemetery.

The U.S. Mint issued a coin in his honor, and Lee has been on five postage stamps. No other Union figure besides President Abraham Lincoln has similar honors. 

A generation after the civil rights movement, black and Latino residents began pressuring elected officials to dismantle Lee and other Confederate memorials in places like New Orleans, Houston and South Carolina. 

The removals partly were based on violent acts committed white supremacists using Confederate imagery and historians questioning the legitimacy of The Lost Cause.

A Gen. Robert E. Lee statue was removed from Lee Circle in New Orleans as the last of four monuments to Confederate-era figures to be removed under a 2015 City Council vote.

The Houston Independent School District also voted in 2016 to rename Robert E. Lee High School, a school with a large Latino population, as Margaret Long Wisdom High School.

In this June 30, 2015, photo, activists gather around the Confederate Army Gen. Robert E. Lee statute at Lee Park chanting the names of Civil War era activists in Dallas

The Charlottesville, Virginia, City Council voted to remove its Lee statue from a city park, sparking a lawsuit from opponents of the move. The debate also drew opposition from white supremacists and neo-Nazis who revered Lee and the Confederacy. 

Monuments and memorials to Lee remain hugely controversial. Currently Virginia’s Supreme Court is hearing arguments on whether the state has the right to take down a statue of Lee on a horse in Richmond.

The monument, which depicts the controversial general mounted on a horse, was dedicated in 1890 and has been the topic of fierce debate in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, for decades. Protesters gathered around the monument last year and defaced it with graffiti and spray paint decrying the death of George Floyd. 

In December, a statue of Lee in the U.S. Capitol was removed and replaced with one of civil rights pioneer Barbara Johns. It was removed after Virginia Governor Ralph Northam requested it be swapped because Lee was not seen as a fitting symbol for the state. 

There has also been calls to change the name of military bases, including one named after Lee – Fort Lee -, that bear the names of slave owners.

Who was General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson?

An engraving of Confederate general Thomas Jonathan Jackson, better known a ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, done by the artist Desmaisons around 1850

Thomas Jonathan Jackson was born on January 21, 1824, in Clarksburg, Virginia, now West Virginia, and became one of the best known Confederate generals in the Civil War, after General Robert E. Lee. 

He was a graduate of Virginia Military Institute and later an artillery professor. He is said to have acquired his nickname ‘Stonewall’ at the First Battle of Manassas on July 21, 1861, from Confederate general Bernard Bee. 

He became known for his ‘legendary’ military prowess at Harpers Ferry in 1861, his 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, and the flanking maneuver at the Battle of Chancellorsville, leading to many statues, schools and even towns being named after him across the US. 

Jackson is also a controversial figure. 

Like many Confederate leaders he held anti-abolitionist views that it was ‘God’s will’ that slavery existed, and is known to have owned at least six enslaved individuals. 

Some Confederate historians argue that Jackson was sympathetic to abolition because he took part in a black Sunday school in 1855 and that several slaves reportedly ‘asked’ to be bought by him to ‘save them’ from harsher owners in the Deep South. 

Other historians warn that these ‘myths’ are routinely used to make former slave-owners appear ‘benevolent’ and to distance the Confederate cause from slavery and white supremacy. 

They also claim that Jackson’s participation in black Sunday school could also be viewed as part of a wide-spread attempt at controlling black, religious life.  

Jackson was accidentally killed, aged 39, by friendly fire in Chancellorsville in May 1863, by a soldier or soldiers of the 18th North Carolina Infantry Regiment. 

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