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Unanimous: Lee Statue Removal OK'd by VA Supreme Court

Lee Monument
Virginia fenced off the Robert E. Lee statue in January of this year, leading to criticism from residents who had used the space around the monument to organize for racial justice throughout 2020. Now, 8 months later, a Virginia Supreme Court decision has affirmed the state's right to remove the statue. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

By Whittney Evans and Patrick Larsen

One of Richmond’s largest vestiges of the South’s “Lost Cause” narrative is finally coming down. The Supreme Court of Virginia sided with Gov. Ralph Northam in his effort to remove the 130-year-old statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Richmond’s Monument Avenue.

The legal battle began last June as racial justice protests erupted in the city.  Northam ordered Lee’s removal declaring Virginia no longer practices a “false version of history.” 

In a unanimous opinion, justices agreed with a lower court that William Gregory, the man who filed one lawsuit against removal, “has  no  property  right,  related to  the Lee  Monument,  to enforce  against  the  Commonwealth,” and therefore cannot stop Northam from removing the statue from state property. Gregory, a descendant of the family who gifted the monument to the state, cited a pair of 19th century deeds, or covenants, that he says bound the state to keeping the monument in its place. 

In a second opinion, the court rejected a complaint filed by Monument Avenue residents, including Helen Marie Taylor, who is known for her Confederate activism. Taylor asserted a property right to enforce the deeds and argued that removing the statue also violates a 1989 joint resolution of the General Assembly accepting the statue, and agreeing to “perpetually maintain the Lee Monument on the circle.” 

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, called the court’s opinions a “thoroughgoing rejection” of those arguments. 

Tobias said the court was clear that public policy has shifted dramatically since the end of the Civil War, when southern states portrayed the Confederate cause as heroic and used the law to deny Black people basic constitutional rights. 

“It's unreasonable because the effect is to compel government speech, by forcing the Commonwealth to express in perpetuity, a message with which it now disagrees,” Tobias said.

The Taylor opinion lists all of the changes in public policy that disavowed the Lost Cause and ended some forms of legal discrimination, like school segregation and bans on interracial marriages.

Lee’s statue is the largest Confederate monument in the City of Richmond. Nearly every other Confederate statue and symbol was removed last summer either by protesters or the city itself at the request of Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney. 

Richmond Councilmember Michael Jones, who proposed giving the city authority to remove Confederate monuments in 2017, pointed out that the battle began years before the nationwide protests last summer, sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, which prompted the state to begin removal.

“It’s just sweet vindication to see the right thing happen, regardless of who gets the credit,” Jones said. ”I believe in the end, it was the grassroots organizing. It was the young folk out there that really weren’t even focused on the monuments. They were focused on justice. And that was just a byproduct of what so many people were asking for.”

Northam called the decision a “tremendous win.”

“When we honor leaders who fought to preserve a system that enslaved human beings, we are honoring a Lost Cause that has burdened Virginia for too many years,” he said.  

Activists celebrated today’s news, but noted it was only one of the demands residents made when they took to the streets. Two of those activists, Chelsea Higgs Wise of Marijuana Justice and Kalia Harris of the Virginia Student Power Network, questioned the state’s priorities.

“Richmond’s most memorable monument to white supremacy right now is the John Marshall courthouse, which still stands to cage our people, evict our people and separate our families,” Wise said, pointing to a range of social problems that activists highlighted during the racial justice protests last year.

Harris agrees.

“I’m glad that after a global uprising for Black liberation, this monument is coming down,” Harris said. “But nothing has changed materially for Black people, and people of color, in the city or state. We are still suffering and we are still dying at the hands of white supremacy.”

Defunding the police was one of several demands protesters had. Harris says they’ve seen the state go the opposite way.

“Since last summer, the legislators in Virginia have given the police more money even from our federal stimulus funding, yet so many Virginians are still being evicted, arrested, surveilled and hurt by law enforcement.” 

State officials declared victory over the “Lost Cause” after news of the opinion broke. Wise says it’s the people who deserve the credit.

“Thank goodness for Richmond protesters,” she said. “One hundred days of protesting in Richmond streets made the need to remove Robert E. Lee just absolutely undeniable.”

Wise said the state fencing off access to the area around the statue, dubbed Marcus-David Peters Circle in honor of a Richmond teacher killed by police during a mental health crisis, showed “no intention of the space being for the people, the protestors, not the families who are what truly made this space so monumental.”

She and Harris say they’re ready for a long struggle.

“In order for Richmond’s history of false narratives to not repeat themselves, our work will continue to highlight the stories about Richomnd’s uprising, of our long time resistance to police violence, and a true remembering of how the monuments came down.”

The Department of General Services released a statement saying it will move “swiftly” to remove the statue. 

“This is an extremely complex removal that requires coordination with multiple entities to ensure the safety of everyone involved,” the statement said. “A date for the removal, as well as ways in which the public can view it, will be announced at a later date. Please follow the Joint Information Center on Twitter and Facebook at @VAMonument2021 for more information as it becomes available.”

Correction: We fixed the name of Marijuana Justice.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.