Northam: Statue Of Robert E. Lee To Be Removed As Soon As Possible

RICHMOND, Va. — A towering statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee will be removed as soon as possible from Richmond’s Monument Avenue, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said Thursday, pledging the state will no longer “preach a false version of history.”

The bronze equestrian statue, which sits on an enormous pedestal on state property, will be moved to storage while Northam’s administration works “with the community to determine its future,” the governor said at a news conference where the announcement was met with extended applause.

“You see, in Virginia, we no longer preach a false version of history. One that pretends the Civil War was about ‘state rights’ and not the evils of slavery. No one believes that any longer,” Northam said.

Northam made the decision, which has been widely praised by black leaders and activists, after days of angry protests in Richmond and across the country over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck while he pleaded for air.

The decision also came a day after Richmond’s mayor, Levar Stoney, announced he will seek to remove the four other Confederate statues along Monument Avenue, a prestigious residential street and National Historic Landmark district in the former capital of the Confederacy.

Together, the decisions mark a striking departure from recent years when even after a violent rally of white supremacists descended on Charlottesville in 2017 and other Confederate monuments started falling across the country, Virginia did not make the same changes.

In part, local governments were hamstrung by a state law that protects memorials to war veterans. That law was amended earlier this year by the new Democratic majority at the statehouse and signed by Northam. When the changes go into effect July 1, localities will be able to decide the monuments’ fate.

As for the Lee statue, Northam and his predecessor, fellow Democrat Terry McAuliffe, have not previously pressed the issue.

McAuliffe said in the aftermath of the Charlottesville rally, where a woman was killed after an avowed white supremacist drove a car into a crowd, that he lacked the authority to remove the statue without General Assembly approval. Some activists and attorneys, including staff of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, disagreed.

Northam, who can’t seek reelection because Virginia governors cannot serve consecutive terms, said earlier this year that he was still studying the issue.

The statues on Monument Avenue are among the most prominent collection of tributes to the Confederacy in the nation.

Today, Lee’s 21-foot (6-meter) sculpture rises atop a pedestal nearly twice that tall on a grassy circle 200 feet (about 61 meters) in diameter.

Northam noted the enormous size of the monument in his remarks Thursday.

“We put things on pedestals when we want people to look up,” he said. “Think about the message that this sends to people coming from around the world to visit the capital city of one of the largest states in our country. Or to young children.”

Elsewhere on the broad avenue lined with mansions and tony apartments are statues to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Gens. J.E.B. Stuart and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Confederate naval officer Matthew Maury.

A statue of black tennis hero Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native, was erected on Monument Avenue in 1996.

The decision to remove the Lee monument has drawn condemnation from Confederate heritage groups and the leader of a Richmond group dedicated to preserving Monument Avenue. But it has been hailed by black lawmakers and activists, many of whom have long called for its removal.

Robert Johns, the brother of the late civil rights icon Barbara Johns, who as a teenager helped lead the push against public school segregation, said his family was pleased to learn of the statue’s removal, calling it a symbol of “hate, bigotry and division.”

“We are now walking into a new era of acceptance, respect and inclusion,” he said.

A descendant of Lee’s brother, the Rev. Robert W. Lee IV, also endorsed the monument’s removal, saying at the press conference that his line of the Lee family “wholeheartedly” commends the governor’s decision.

“Friends, the world may be burning and the world is about to turn because we are going to let justice roll down, and this is the start of something incredible,” he said.

Leaders of the House and Senate GOP caucuses criticized Northam, whose decision on the statue marks his most visible action so far to make good on his pledge to devote his term to promoting racial equity after a scandal over a racist photo that appeared on his medical school yearbook page nearly forced him from office last year.

“The Governor’s decision to remove the Lee statue from Monument Avenue is not in the best interests of Virginia. Attempts to eradicate instead of contextualizing history invariably fail,” Senate GOP leaders said in a statement.

For years, when Republicans controlled the General Assembly, they blocked efforts to change the law protecting war memorials.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of General Services, which Northam said would handle the removal, said Thursday planning is underway to ensure it is completed “safely and effectively.”

Republican leaders issued the following statement after Northam’s announcement:

STATEMENT BY SENATE REPUBLICAN LEADERSHIP ON 

GOVERNOR NORTHAM’S ANNOUNCEMENT REGARDING LEE STATUE

WILLIAMSBURG, VA, 4 JUNE 2020: Senate Republican Leader Thomas K. Norment, Jr. (R-James City), Caucus Chairman Ryan T. McDougle (R-Hanover), Caucus Co-Chairman Mark D. Obenshain (R-Rockingham), Caucus Whips William M. Stanley, Jr. (R-Franklin) and Bryce E. Reeves (R-Spotsylvania), and Republican Leader Pro-Tempore Stephen D. Newman (R-Bedford) today issued the following statement regarding Governor Northam’s announcement that the Lee statue would be removed from Monument Avenue:

“Like all Virginians, we were outraged and deeply saddened by the murder of George Floyd.  His brutal and senseless death has shocked the entire nation.  We renew our commitment to ensuring our criminal justice is system is fair to all, providing protections to everyone from the unnecessary use of force which ended Mr. Floyd’s life.

“Virginia’s law enforcement professionals place themselves in harm’s way every day, ensuring our neighborhoods, homes, businesses, and streets are safe for all.  They have earned and deserve the support of all Virginians, and they most certainly have ours.  During these challenging days, they have protected the First Amendment rights of those protesting and strived to prevent escalations that result in the loss of life and property.  In our experience, Virginia’s law enforcement professionals are committed to preventing any who employ excessive force from remaining in their ranks, and we support them and stand ready to assist them in those efforts.

“The Governor’s decision to remove the Lee statue from Monument Avenue is not in the best interests of Virginia.  Attempts to eradicate instead of contextualizing history invariably fail.  And because of this Governor’s personal history, the motivations of this decision will always be suspect.  Like Senator Chase’s idiotic, inappropriate and inflammatory response, his decision is more likely to further divide, not unite, Virginians.

“We remain committed to a Virginia that offers opportunity for all, one where racism and bigotry are not tolerated.  We stand ready to work on behalf of all Virginians in achieving that ideal.”

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. PHOTO: AP

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