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Virginia's Robert E. Lee statue removal is a victory for activists

Removing the Confederate general's monument inRichmond was years in the making.
Image: Crews remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Va., on Sept. 8, 2021.
Crews remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., on Wednesday.Steve Helber / AP

The removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, on Wednesday is a powerful symbolic victory. For 131 years, Black residents had had to walk past the statue and see a constant reminder of how white supremacy continues to shape American life and culture.

Black residents had had to walk past the statue and see a constant reminder of how white supremacy continues to shape American life.

There is perhaps no greater proof of the persistence of white supremacy and how it has shaped public memory than the myth of "the Lost Cause": the idea that during the Civil War the South fought a principled battle for states’ rights with the continuation of slavery as only an ancillary factor. Those who embrace this distorted view of history insist that Confederate monuments hold some value: to honor what they call “Southern pride and heritage.” Yet those emphasizing states’ rights overlook one critical point: Southern states were fighting for the right to enslave human beings.

Even a cursory examination of the Confederate States of America — the rebel state established in 1861 — underscores the undeniable links between slavery and the Civil War. “Its foundations are laid,” Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens clearly explained of his government in his infamous 1861 Cornerstone speech, “its corner-stone 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’ remarks, as well as the Constitution of the Confederate States of America, paint a clear picture of the vital role slavery played in secession and the Civil War.

Confederate statues, therefore, are public fixtures meant to glorify racism. They send a powerful message about which groups belong in the American polity — and which groups do not. These symbols of the Confederacy cannot be divorced from white supremacy in the United States.

The history of Confederate statues reveals far more about their intended purpose than today’s sympathizers acknowledge. Richmond’s Robert E. Lee monument, which glorified a white supremacist and traitor, was made possible through the efforts of former Confederates, sympathizers and Lee’s relatives. During the mid-1880s — 20 years after the end of the Civil War — then Virginia Gov. Fitzhugh Lee, the Confederate general’s nephew, played a central role in soliciting donations for the monument. With the help of many others, Gov. Lee managed to raise enough funds to order the 12-ton statue of Robert E. Lee for more than $75,000. Over 100,000 people witnessed its May 1890 unveiling.

The timing was no coincidence. As was the case with many of the Confederate monuments in the United States, the push to install the statue of Lee after Reconstruction was in response to the expansion of Black political rights that Reconstruction had made possible. As Blair L.M. Kelley, an assistant dean and associate professor of history at North Carolina State University, told me, “These statues, including Lee, were erected in response to the achievements of Black citizens.”

For as long as the statue has been on display in Richmond, activists have decried its presence. While many white Americans celebrated its installation, Black people in Virginia and across the nation denounced it. As Kelley details in her groundbreaking book, "Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson," John Mitchell Jr., the anti-lynching publisher of The Richmond Planet, used his fiery pen to condemn segregation and racial violence in the city. Following the installation of the Lee statue, Mitchell, who'd been born into slavery in Richmond, led mass protests throughout the city demanding its removal. According to Kelley, Mitchell emphasized that the Lee statue was “not grounded in American patriotism but a desire to go back to a time when Black Richmonders had no rights.”

Since its installation in 1890, generations of Black activists worked to bring down the Robert E. Lee statue.

Since its installation in 1890, generations of Black activists have worked to bring down the Lee statue. This decadeslong fight came to a head in 2020 during the mass protests following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and other African Americans last year. Reigniting an old debate about the significance of Confederate monuments, activists in Richmond and beyond demanded the removal of these white supremacist symbols. And one by one, they came toppling down. On June 4, 2020, during the height of the summer uprisings, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced his plans to remove the Lee statue — a task finally completed on Wednesday. Northam was on hand to witness the removal of “the last Confederate statue on Monument Avenue, and the largest in the South.”

Virginians who opposed the announcement had turned to the courts in hopes of saving the statue, but their efforts failed when the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled last week that the governor had the authority to remove it. While the 2020 uprisings certainly lit the spark, the removal of the Lee statue is the result of a decadeslong struggle. And indeed, it was a struggle — a hundred and thirty-one years in the making.

The removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond is no small matter. It is a symbolic gesture, but that does not diminish its deep significance.

“The removal of the most iconic of Lee statues is a step forward in removing the stain of white supremacy from the landscape of Richmond, of Virginia, and of the South," said Karen L. Cox, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the author of "No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Equality."

Still, Cox cautions, there must now be “a real effort to address the issues that Confederate monuments raise about racial inequality, police brutality and white supremacy.”